You would think it somewhat odd and improbable that one of America’s greatest books of crime reportage was written by an author known as much for his precious public persona as for his mastery of various literary genres. However, this is exactly what Truman Capote achieved with In Cold Blood, published in 1965. The book’s subtitle, “a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences,” neatly outlines the story Capote tells, a story that is banal, cruel, senseless, evil, and inevitable. In its most basic form the book recounts how two small-time drifters, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, killed Herbert Clutter, his wife, and their two teen-age children during a robbery in their home in Holcomb, Kansas, on November 15, 1959, their subsequent flight, eventual capture, trial, and execution.
However, what makes In Cold Blood so compelling and a classic of its kind (besides the quality of the writing) is how Capote used and shaped his material to construct a narrative that achieves the literary outcome he envisioned. He did not wish to write a lurid true-crime story, but rather a tragedy, both moral and human, that affected all who came into contact with the crime and its aftermath—the victims, the townspeople, the law enforcement personnel, and the killers.
Capote’s research was extensive and unusual. He spent time in Holcomb getting to know the town and its inhabitants, the law enforcement personnel involved in the investigation, and friends and acquaintances of the murdered family. He was also given access to the killers and gained their trust to such a degree that he was able to obtain much information about their upbringing and formative years, private papers, psychiatric evaluations, and day-to-day thoughts and experiences during the period immediately preceding and following the night of the murders.
Because Capote never met the victims, they do not come across as vividly and “alive” as the people he did meet and get to know. Rather, they serve as a tragic backdrop in the story of their own hideous personal tragedy. The most fully drawn and human characters are Alvin Dewey, the lead criminal investigator, and the two killers. What is most striking about Hickock and Perry is the utter paltriness, baseness, shabbiness, futility and waste of their lives. In different ways the four victims and the two killers were doomed. On one level (that of a Greek tragedy) it is almost as if Capote believed that these six people were fated to be brought together.
But read the book for yourself to see what a master can do with the material at hand.
Check the WRL catalog for In Cold Blood