The truth is not what it was when I was a little girl. That was a truth akin to that of court witnesses who swore to ‘tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. I would not be telling the truth if I were to write that it wasn’t just children who had this straightforward view of the truth, because I cannot know if adults also thought this way in my childhood. Such as assertion may be a reasonable inference, or it may an imaginative response to a phenomenon beyond my ken, but it would be more than the truth.
Truth in the 21st century is a different creature altogether, with few scruples. Truman Capote who wrote In Cold Blood in 1965 was, according to the blurb on the book, the inventor of ‘novelistic non-fiction’, neither journalism nor a crime thriller, but possibly both. He used the known facts from an horrific crime in the American Middle West to write his story, but he added to it when it suited him. So unless the reader herself knows ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ about this case she cannot sift out what actually happened from Capote’s reconstruction.
And that’s the point. What actually happened matters only to the participants or criminologists. People read crime fiction for the same reason that little children like fairy tales: they like to scare themselves because it helps them manage the fears in their own lives. Truman’s book is a portrayal of cold-blooded evil, a phenomenon as rare as trolls, ogres and wicked witches but he has written more than the truth: this author has had the temerity to ‘get inside the participants’ heads’ to tell us what they thought. It’s fascinating, if you like that kind of thing…
I like Midsummer Murders, the ultimate British spoof of the TV detective genre – but I don’t read crime fiction because I think it’s inane. I am no more interested in reading the ins and outs of criminal investigations in a book than I am in reading about them in a tabloid newspaper, or worse, having the sensational details saturating the news on TV and radio, (a malaise to which the ABC has lately succumbed). I was reading In Cold Blood because of its place in literary history, so I was surprised to find that it was not until I had started Part II: Persons Unknown, that I really began to notice Capote’s artifice. I certainly noticed the foreshadowing in Part I: The Last To See Them Alive: young Bobby Rupp taking the lie detector test (p60); and Nancy choosing the dress in which she was to be buried (p67); but by and large I was drawn into the lost lives of the victims and taking what I read at face value. However, there were a couple of instances when Capote was writing about Perry that it became obvious that he was departing from the ‘known’ facts: how could Capote ‘know’ that the man hated the Texas plains? (p59) The conversation between Mryt Clare and Mother Truit (p79) must be fictionalised too, as is Andy Erhart pondering the mystery of the Clutters’ annihilation as he watches the bonfire smoke (p87).
In Part 2, Persons Unknown, Capote signals his artifice over and over again, as he explores the character and motivations of the killers, and after a while I found it began to jar. Would I have minded this more, or less, if the Clutters and their killers had not been real people? In Cold Blood is not crime fiction – it’s based on events that really happened, and Capote spent six years investigating the case. So Perry corrects the grammar in news reports about the case (p97); was impressed that 1000 people came to the Clutters’ funeral (p104); and had fantasies about a bride (p105)? It seems like ‘fly-on-the-wall’ reportage, but it can’t be. Does Capote know this from talking to Perry and Dick? Is he inferring it from other facts that he knows? Or is it entirely made up?
By the end of the book I didn’t care. I had completely lost interest and only finished In Cold Blood because I wanted to complete the 1% Well-Read Challenge this year and the book is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list.
Author: Truman Capote
Title: In Cold Blood
Publisher: Popular Penguins, 2008 (first published in the US 1965)
Source: Personal copy