In Cold Blood
by Truman Capote
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If criminals (as the saying goes) always return
to the scene of the crime, authors of crime
novels follow a much different
modus
operandi
.  They tend to stay in their studies,
inventing characters, weapons, motives and
the like with only
their imagination as
guide.  But with
In
Cold Blood
, Truman
Capote was the one
who kept coming
back to the locale
of a real-life murder,
trying to realize his
goal of creating a different kind of crime
story, one that, in his words"would be
precisely like a novel, with a single difference:
Every word of it would be true from
beginning to end."

Capote (1924-1984) had already enjoyed
impressive literary successes before
In Cold
Blood
.  His debut novel Other Voices, Other
Rooms
was a bestseller in 1948, with an option
on movie rights snatched up by 20th Century
Fox even before publication.  His 1958
novella
Breakfast at Tiffany's prompted
Norman Mailer to laud him as "the most
perfect writer of my generation," and
Hollywood this time turned the story into a
very successful film starring Audrey
Hepburn.   Despite these considerable
achievements, Capote may have made more
headlines as a
bon vivant  than a man of
letters.  The masked ball he threw in honor
of Katharine Graham of
The Washington Post
is still talked about, and makes any short list
of the most memorable parties in New York
history.  And Capote was just as capable of
standing out from the crowd on TV talk
shows or Studio 54 or any other locale where
celebrities gathered.

How different he comes across in his greatest
work,
In Cold Blood, a masterpiece of control
and precision, almost the antithesis of
Capote's public persona of flamboyance and
excess.  This book was an international
bestseller, but also a literary masterpiece that
aimed at nothing less than redefining the role
of the novel in an age in which the
immediacy of news was already starting to
overwhelm the niceties of narrative fiction.   
Capote would live for almost two decades
after the publication of this work, yet he
never completed another novel, and his
posthumous and fragmentary
Answered Prayers,
when it finally appeared in 1987, showed how
little progress he had made in living up to the
expectations engendered by
In Cold Blood.  
Yet in that true life crime story he validated
all of his early promise and managed—
perhaps the greatest of wonders—to create a
book that would be even more memorable
than his larger-than-life personality.
ROGUES GALLERY:
TRUMAN CAPOTE
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

The crime novel was mostly forgotten by cutting
edge American novelists during the 1950s and
1960s, its formulas seen as too confining, perhaps
even too vulgar for the free
spirits of modern fiction.   
Even more to the point,
the idealization of "law
and order," inherent to
the genre, was unlikely to
appeal to a Jack Kerouac, a
Ken Kesey, a Thomas Pyn-
chon and the other literary
bohemians who increasingly
set the tone for the not-so-
belles lettres of this period,
often by means of works that revealed rather a
tendency to lawlessness and disorder.  

But when Truman Capote finally delivered the great
literary treatment of murder and justice of the era,
In Cold Blood, his approach deviated markedly from
the experimental tendencies of the day.  Instead of
embracing the outrageous and fanciful, the
extravagant and transgressive—areas where he
would have enjoyed an inherent advantage as a
chronicler—Capote moved toward a scrupulous
realism, and a deliberate encroachment on the
traditional territory of nonfiction authors.   He still
relied on the storytelling techniques honed over two
decades of writing fiction, yet now brought them to
bear on a subject and situation that would normally
be addressed by journalists or perhaps sociologists.

On November 16, 1959,
The New York Times
reported on the murder of four members of a well-
to-do family in a small town in Kansas.  The
Times,
then as now, downplayed sensational crime stories,
and this brief article, headlined "Wealthy Farmer, 3
of Family Slain," would have been easy enough to
miss. "A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their
two young children were found shot to death today
in their home," the newswire account began. "They
had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after
being bound and gagged.…"  Fascinated by the few
facts provided in this brief story, Capote was soon
on his way to Kansas to begin what would turn out
to be a six-year odyssey—a period encompassing the
investigation of the crime, the arrest of Richard
Hickock and Perry Smith, their trial and conviction,
and ultimately their hanging on April 14, 1965.  

For some time, Capote had been looking for a
different way of conceptualizing the modern novel.  
He felt that little true innovation had taken place
since the 1920s, that most stories tended toward
either pulp fiction clichés or neo-fabulist excesses.   
With
In Cold Blood he hoped to do something
different, construct an essentially non-fiction novel,
one which would allow him to replace, in his words,
the "self-created world" of the traditional novel,
with "the everyday objective world we all inhabit."  

Capote had long cut an impressive figure in the
literary world, able to command the interest of
socialites and celebrities, and even the mass media,
to a degree that no later American novelist has been
able to match.  Yet in researching and writing
In
Cold Blood
, Capote revealed different talents and
social skills, sometimes relying on his reserves of
charm while in other instances falling back on an
almost ruthless pursuit of self-interest.   No wonder
that, in addition to the story
in the novel, an almost
equally compelling story
behind the novel would
eventually come to light, even serving as the basis
for its own Hollywood movie, the 2005 film
Capote.  

In the world of law enforcement, police have limits
imposed on them by the courts—restrictions that
constrain what techniques they are allowed to
employ in eliciting a confession.  Authors play by
different rules, usually outside the purview of judge
and jury, and Capote in this instance was
determined to extract a complete account of the
grisly murders from the reluctant Perry.  At the
same time, Capote positioned himself as friend and
helper to the condemned man, using this as leverage
in his dealings with the prisoner.  Critics will
continue to debate the thorny ethical questions
raised by Capote's research for
In Cold Blood.  Yet
ultimately our author got the raw material he
needed for the key sections of his future bestseller
straight from the criminal’s lips, and the result was
one of the most gripping books of the era.

Five months after the murderers’ execution, the first
installment of
In Cold Blood appeared in The New
Yorker
.  And only ten weeks after this serialization
was completed, the novel came out in book form to
great acclaim…but also controversy.  Ever since the
rise of romanticism, authors have been allowed,
even encouraged, to make grand claims for
themselves, but Capote rankled many by asserting
the one thing most likely to irritate the literary
establishment of the modern day: namely, to have
presented the truth, reality, a fiction that wasn't
really fiction.  The very term "non-fiction novel"
spurred a backlash, fueled further by the commercial
success of the work.   And, indeed, if the essence of
the emerging worldview of that period—especially
in European currents, but soon to make their way to
America—was to deconstruct all claims to truth,
and to make even non-fiction look as if it were a
deception, then Capote was the most retrograde of
all, with his reversal of the postmodernist course
and stated aim to establish fiction as a pathway to an
accurate transcription of events, making it into a
type of supercharged narrative both encompassing
and transcending historiographical and journalistic
techniques.    

Capote's control and restraint—characteristics
hardly congruent with his public persona—are
everywhere evident in this book.  The prose, first
and foremost, lives up to his own self-
congratulatory praise:  "I think most writers, even
the best, overwrite," he would later explain.  "I
prefer to underwrite.  Simple, clear as a country
creek."   And he achieves just that in this novel.  
From the opening paragraph, the tautness and
clarity jump out at you from the printed page:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of
western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call
"out there." Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border,
the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clean air,
has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than
Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie
twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them,
wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots
with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are
awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of
grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are
visible long before a traveler reaches them.

An uncanny sangfroid and lucidity are ever present
in this book, contrasting markedly with the
unsettling events chronicled, in writing that often
seems so unobtrusively matter-of-fact, but which
Capote must have struggled greatly to craft.  But
equally impressive is his narrative voice, as
important to the success of
In Cold Blood as the
exemplary flow of the sentences and paragraphs.  
When he finally presents Smith’s account of the
murder, Capote almost disappears entirely as an
authorial presence.  The reader feels drawn directly
into the mind of the killer, a chilling effect, but one
that is in no way dependent on the familiar pulp
fiction devices to create suspense and horror.   

This book may be less timely now, dealing as it does
with a small town crime more than a half-century in
the past.  Yet
In Cold Blood has hardly lost any of its
intensity and mesmerizing effect.   Even so, few
major writers have tried to follow in Capote's
footsteps, and this type of vividly realistic writing on
crime is still mainly the domain of genre specialists
or non-fiction authors.  And strangest of all, Capote
himself never managed to repeat, or even approach
the success of this work.  The author who was only
thirty-five when he started on
In Cold Blood, would
never publish another novel in his lifetime, and the
surviving fragments stitched together to form his
posthumous
Answered Prayers suggest that the
challenge of living up to standard set by this
bestseller and literary masterpiece was even more
than he could face.



Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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Further Clues:

In Cold Blood: 40 Years Later

Interview with Truman Capote by Pati Hill from The
Paris Review

The Critical Response to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

Capote in Kansas: a graphic novel
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