In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Slate article about the In Cold Blood fact checker
New Yorker's questions on the veracity of the story
This is a book that has never been without controversy. I originally read it in 11th grade English class and I remember there were one or two students in the class that were given alternate reading material because their parents didn't want them reading the book. It wasn't a big deal. No one made a fuss, or said that none of us could or should read it. I've since reread it as an adult. I've seen the movies on Capote's life and the movies on the Clutter family murder. For murders that took place in 1959, this story and the stories behind the story are still making headlines. The two links to the Slate and New Yorker articles are from March of this year. In 2005 and 2006 Capote movies were released, of course with the main focus being the 1959 murders and Capote's subsequent book.
In November of 1959, four members of the Clutter family (all but two older daughters who longer lived at home) were murdered, each by a single gunshot, in their home in Holcomb, Kansas. Herb Clutter, his wife and children were beloved in their small town. Herb ran a successful farm and was known as a smart businessman and an exemplary family man and a fair and caring employer. Part of the shock felt by the citizens of Holcomb was the inexplicability of murdering this kind and beloved family. a town where no one locked their doors was suddenly hit with the reality of the dangers possibly awaiting the people who called it home.
This is the pinnacle of true crime writing. Capote managed to get every detail of this horrific and senseless crime and make every character complex and human. Without glorifying the killers, he made Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, not just the sociopathic and disturbed men they were, but he gave a clear picture of them as humans. Both of them had families and dreams and yet they savagely murdered this lovely family. I think the reader comes away with a "there but for the grace of God, go I" feeling, about both the victims and the criminals. Any one of us could have wound up like any one of them. Who knows what any man is capable of, or what horrors could be waiting around any corner? That's what makes this all the more powerful. Here is the accounting of the thoughts and actions and lives of so many diverse, real people who were affected by the events of this one night.
In the movie Capote they portray him as this incredibly self-absorbed man who had a huge impact on the story, and yet there is no sign of that at all in the book. Capote spent a great deal of time with the investigators. He used his fame to insinuate himself into the lives of the people of Holcomb and even the jail keeper's wife. He regularly visited the killers in jail and in prison, brought them presents, hired them defense attorneys for their appeals. Despite all of his machinations in the background and all of the ways he influenced the story and the people in it, there is no sign of him in the book. It's obvious that he was close to the story and filled the book with much firsthand knowledge, but it seems more omniscient than the work of a man who spent years schmoozing and simpering to ingratiate himself with the players to extract information.
This book is a masterpiece. Capote deserves credit for creating the nonfiction murder novel, or however he referred to it. I'm not surprised that he never finished another book after it. it took years of his life to doggedly pursue the end of this story. While Smith and Hickock were breathing sighs of relief each time their execution date was adjourned, Capote had to contend with a story that seemed like it would never end. It's kind of creepy to think that he put so much time and money into these men and their fates. I mean he was instrumental in their defense and each time his assistance worked, he wound up annoyed that Smith and Hickock wouldn't just die already so he could publish his book. How's that for conflicted?