Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2009

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

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)
ISBN: 9780141038391
Source: Personal copy


Responses

  1. Interesting review, Lisa. This was a set text when I studied journalism. And you’ve raised all the points we discussed: it’s a “version” of the truth, but it’s not “the” whole truth.

    What’s most interesting about this book is that he was the first writer to take the story-telling technique of the novel and apply it to a factual event.

    Interestingly, Capote used to claim he had 99% recall — ie. that he could memorise entire conversations without taking notes. I always considered that highly dubious, which does make you wonder just how much of In Cold Blood is truly fact and how much of it is truly fiction.

  2. Ah, that’s interesting about it being a set text, I should have guessed it, I suppose.
    I’m not so disinclined to reject Capote’s claim: when I was younger I used to be able to memorise long poems and slabs of text word-for-word on a single reading – a type of ‘photographic memory’ which came in handy for exams LOL. Musicians and artists can sometimes reproduce an image or a tune on a single exposure to it too.
    Lisa

  3. LOL Lisa…I rather like Midsomer murders but there are many who don’t.

    Anyhow, great reviews. It’s nearly 8 years since I read this book so I really can’t recall enough to respond in detail. I did though enjoy the nonfiction novel style… I don’t read crime or true crime as a rule so can’t compare, but I thought this was a well-written book. I guess the point for me was that, being a novel, it is one person’s interpretation (even more-so than perhaps a “straight” non-fiction book and I shouldn’t take anything as gospel. On those grounds I found it a rivetting read as I recollect… The film Capote takes up the story too and explores what Capote may have done in terms of interpretation of the events particularly in terms of the relationship he developed with Perry. He was, by all accounts, an odd man.

    • I saw the film too, and I thought it was very well done and extremely thought provoking…but somehow this book just didn’t engage me, not once I was past the first chapter. Yet I loved Summer Crossing by Capote, so I shall still look out for other books by him.

  4. Do you think it is partly where you are at present? I am finding my current read not fully engaging me though it’s an easy enough read. I think I’m spread too thin at present to really commit. Terrible thing to admit but that’s the situation I think.

  5. No, I don’t think so – I think that it’s just that I don’t really like crime!

  6. Lisa,

    Enjoyed your review and the questions about truth, storytelling, and authorial responsibility are all quite intriguing. I see room for an interesting essay on comparisons between In Cold Blood and DeLillo’s even more fictional Libra. Is one more ethical than the other? Are they works of art and, therefore, truth is subservient to artistic merit? I do not have good answers to these questions, at least not in the few seconds since I’ve posed them.

    I did really enjoy In Cold Blood. I found the writing engaging, the story horrifying, and the protagonist-killers revolting. I would say it is probably the most chilling book I have read.

    I can definitely see how someone who does not like crime would soon be turned off, particularly when some fictionalizing enters the picture. I assume Bolano’s 2666 which I have not read, is not next on your list….(I intend to read it someday, but I dread that day…)

    Anyway, I enjoyed your review!

  7. Oh Kerry I *have* tried to read De Lillo, and I have something of his (I forget which one) on the TBR, and so is the Bolano 2666.
    I have to confess to being completely inconsistent about this business of fictionalising truth: for example, I didn’t object to Richard Flanagan fictionalising Mahinna’s life in Wanting, but I didn’t like him doing it to Dickens. I certainly didn’t mind White doing it with Voss, and I thought Girl with a Pearl Earring was harmless. But that one by Sonya Hartnett where she was obviously drawing on the missing Beaumont children, was IMO cruel.
    I would like somebody who is much better read than me to write some online articles about the issue so that I can sort out a philosophical position and stick to it!

  8. […] No One Writes to the Colonel (Ms. SP) 10. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler (Mee) 11. In Cold Blood (Lisa Hill) 12. Kapil 13. The Woman in White (Caroline) 14. Mansfield Park (melanie) 15. The Counterfeiters […]


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