Behold the masterpiece of true crime storytelling before it was ever a thing. Considered one of the best nonfiction books of all time, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote recalls the true story of the murders of the Clutter family, found dead from shotgun blasts in their home in Holcomb, Kansas. Investigators found next to no clues and no motive.
The book broke new ground by joining investigative journalism together with the narrative format of a novel. Capote blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction, helping forge a new genre of literature: the nonfiction novel. Every true crime documentary you’ve ever binged owes its success to In Cold Blood.
Holcomb, Kansas was a town no one had any business hearing of unless they were passing through on the Santa Fe Railroad. A bank that was converted into an apartment house, a post office, a school, a few scattered homes, and an abandoned dance hall was all Holcomb had to offer any outsiders. Capote goes into great detail describing this tranquil, almost ghostly backdrop of rural America. It seems unnecessarily specific at first, but Capote is pulling you in to this outlying setting for effect. A bon vivant of the New York City literary scene, Capote was accustomed to high society trappings, martinis, and elitist conversations about his New Yorker pieces; these vices of his profession were lightyears away from the vast stretch of nothingness in western Kansas. When he first arrived – with fellow author Harper Lee to assist with research – he soaked in the land, its history, its culture, its people, their customs, their hopes, and, most importantly, their fears. He builds this idyllic slice of humble, God-fearing Americana to pack a deadlier blow when his chief characters arrive and splatter it with blood.
Just like the town of Holcomb, Capote gives us an intimate look at the victims and their last days leading up to their untimely deaths. There was Herb Clutter, prominent Kansan farmer and well-respected throughout Holcomb; his wife Bonnie, anxiety-ridden by the pressures of being a dutiful wife and mother; son Kenyon, able-bodied and obedient of Herb’s orders; and daughter Nancy, social butterfly whose calendar was full with appointments to assist others around town (there were two more Clutter daughters who were not home the night of the murders.) Capote’s descriptions and characterizations of each Clutter family member are impressive considering he never spoke with any of them; they had already been murdered when he first learned of their deaths in The New York Times. His portrayal of the Clutters as a fully realized, yet imperfect, American dream adds to the tragedy of their premature deaths, which came at the hands of two men, representative of America’s darker nature.
Interchanging back and forth with the Clutters’ final hours in Holcomb, Capote introduces us to Perry Edward Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock, fresh out of the Kansas State Penitentiary where they were cellmates. Both men were traveling together through Kansas in a black 1949 Chevrolet looking to earn, or steal, enough money to get them to Mexico to bask in the sunshine, away from their troubles.
Capote inserts us into the desperate lives and schemes of Perry and Dick. What makes In Cold Blood such a provocative book, especially upon its original release in 1965, is the level of empathy Capote has for the murderers. His profiling of Perry and Dick shifts In Cold Blood from a who-done-it mystery to a why-they-did-it case study. The synopsis of the book states right away the killers were captured, tried, and executed, but Capote searches beyond their heinous deeds and strives to piece together remnants of their fragmented humanity. The author’s chosen epigraph for the book indicates the greater morality of the reader taking some level of pity on evildoers. Capote patiently fuses the grim chain of events of each man’s past together to unveil the motives behind their brutal murders of the Clutters. The motives – not to be spoiled here – are a shocking and depressing revelation, very much indicative of lost, reckless men. Capote builds this tension masterfully.
The writing of this book is depicted in the film Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman who won the Oscar for the role. The film, hardly a biopic, narrows its scope on Capote’s special relationship with Perry, with whom Capote was far more enamored than Dick. Perry wasn’t keen on explaining himself to anyone about his life. But Capote, feeling an intuitive connection with Perry, delicately prompts him for his side of the story. In their quiet interactions together, Perry slowly opens up about his stunted emotional growth as a child, torn from his dysfunctional family, and set on a path that was destined to end in catastrophe. Capote says to Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. Then one day, he walked out the back door and I walked out the front.”
Capote depicts the relationship with Perry as a particularly bruising experience for the author, leaving him drained of his usual gusto showed earlier in the film. Characters’ criticisms against Capote steadily persist that he is simply using Dick and especially Perry for his book’s research. “Do you hold him in esteem, Truman?” asks Lee. “Well, he’s a goldmine,” answers Capote.
In the scene where Capote visits Perry and Dick for the final time, minutes before their execution, he is treated with thinly cloaked skepticism of his genuine concern for the men. “Well, well, he returns,” says Dick with a smirk, clearly observant of Capote’s habit to only visit when he needed something. Hoffman’s performance in this scene captures Capote’s realization that after all of his interviews with these men and his attempted humanization of them, authentic or not – they are still being put to death. He stands before Perry and Dick, tongue-tied and choking back tears, only able to say, “I did everything I could.” His time with them had ended and pieces of him died along with Perry and Dick.
As you might imagine, the real Truman Capote drew plenty of criticisms from fact-checkers claiming inaccuracies and embellishments when the book was released. This pursuit to separate fact from fiction continues today. These criticisms are fair considering how many passages of dialogue read precisely as if Capote eavesdropped on every character in every location. Dialogue spoken between members of the Clutter family early in the book are likely liberties taken by Capote for dramatic effect. Internal monologues, most of which belong to Perry and Dick, help construct a tighter narrative flow but are impossible to discern whether they were the characters’ actual thoughts at the time. In the book’s acknowledgements, Capote states:
“All the material in this book not derived from my own observation is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with persons directly concerned, more often than not numerous interviews conducted over a considerate period of time.”
Capote’s boastful claims about the book’s absolute accuracy invited most of the criticisms, eager to spot an error. Though plenty of errors were indeed spotted, they ultimately have little effect on the book’s standing as a timeless classic.
Why you should read this book: In Cold Blood is the original true crime sensation. It’s the story of two different Americas colliding: a prosperous, wholesome Midwestern family caught in the crosshairs of violent men, abandoned by a system that promised rehabilitation. It introduced into the public discourse how easily a distressed individual could be capable of extreme violence. It’s an objective, in-depth look into the minds of two killers that allows the reader to judge them however he or she sees fit. It is written in such a professional style, you know you’re in the hands of a competent author. Capote more than delivers with rich, atmospheric descriptions of characters and locations. The suspense and tension he employs, withholding key details until the book’s finale, keeps those pages turning. Nancy Clutter’s stolen future and Perry Smith’s haunted past take hold in your consciousness even when you set the book down.
Simply put: if you’re a true crime fan, read In Cold Blood.