And yet another book that I have been meaning to read for ages: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I never understood what on earth a lauded and supposedly literary type like Truman Capote was doing with a true crime book topping his very short list. I mean, where did this author fit in my categories of writers? What I absorbed about him from culture just didn’t make sense.
Capote lived from the 1920s to the 1980s. He wasn’t just a writer (of different genres), but also an actor. He became famous first with the publication of short stories in many of the highest-caliber magazines. He grew up in the same town as Harper Lee, in the South, but he moved to a writer’s colony in New York and ended up dying in California. Local Color is a collection of travel writing. A Christmas Memory is a short story-turned-illustrated children’s story that you see around here or there at the holidays. Summer Crossing is a novel that Capote wrote and destroyed except a house-sitter saved it from the bin and it was published posthumously. Other Voices: Other Rooms was his first published novel. He adapted plays, acted in plays, wrote articles for The New Yorker, and wrote the memoir Brooklyn Heights, which used famous photography and—besides a pretty interesting life, already—underscored how much of a famous personality he was (which had something to do with his quirkiness and open gayness). The novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (yes, that Breakfast at Tiffany’s) was next, and then In Cold Blood (first serialized in The New Yorker). With his friend Harper Lee, he took six years and devoted extensive research (much on-site) to the writing of In Cold Blood, which would become his most famous output. He adapted some screenplays and lived the life of the social elite, rubbing elbows with the most famous personalities. He was working on a memoir novel, Unanswered Prayers while his drug use and alcoholism spiraled out of control. He published Music for Chameleons, a collection of short stories and nonfiction, became a recluse, and then died of a drug overdose at the home of a friend (Johnny Carson’s wife). Yeah, basically a super interesting but depressing life riddled with random, yet brilliant, productivity in various artistic endeavors. So I guess I sorta get, now, where he fits and why he wrote the randomness that I have seen.
Truman Capote called In Cold Blood a “non-fiction novel” and also “an experiment in journalistic writing.” Indeed, while you’re reading it, you’re not quite sure where to put it. It’s something akin to the fictionalized versions of true stories that dominate streaming TV nowadays: where you know not every single conversation is word-for-word but at least it’s “based on fact.” (Examples: The Dropout, Inventing Anna, and Pam & Tommy.) Actually, having spent years on-sight and immersing himself from an early stage in the process (before the perpetrators were even caught), Capote claimed In Cold Blood was all true and that his memory had been tested to 90% accuracy. However, when some people did fact-check the wildly popular book, there were (according to them and some of the book’s “characters”) some clearly fabricated moments and, well, we can just throw the meaning of quotations out the window. Even still, Capote includes pages and pages of documentation, which might sound truly boring, but a vast majority of time it is not, not at all. In Cold Blood, though perhaps old-fashioned now (as a precursor to interesting, marketable true crime), is riveting. It reminded me, a bit, of Columbine, a similar novel-nonfiction hybrid of sorts and another excellent book. (They both also seek to layer truth so deep that we are able to sympathize across the board.)
It’s 1959, and the Clutter family of four has been murdered in their prosperous farmhouse in rural Kansas. There are very few clues as to who dunnit and zero reason why anyone would have. The Clutters were salt-of-the-earth people, extremely well-liked and kind, and Mr. Clutter—though wealthy—only dealt in checks and kept his money in the bank, a fact everybody in and around town knew. There was no robbery, besides, except for a couple very random incidentals. The book deals in quarters: first, the day of. Second, the evasion of the murderers. Third, the catching of the criminals. Fourth, the trial, etc. I have to admit that the fourth section was the least interesting to me, so it was harder to finish the book than to begin it. At any rate, it was difficult for me to realize what I was reading and connect that to how interesting the whole thing was. There was a beauty in some of the passages that contrasted with the dry, sparseness of other passages. And it’s possible that the construction was genius: the back-and-forth, the chronology, the withholding yet revealing nature of it. I’m pretty sure that as far as true crime goes, you can’t do much better than this classic though perhaps there should have been more verifying. (Or, like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, made to qualify itself. The truth is that as a reader you never even believe everything is 100% factual, because this is just too much information. And yet, the information given is strangely verifiable and has an unmistakable ring of authenticity.)
Certainly, if you enjoy true crime and haven’t read In Cold Blood, you should. Even if you don’t normally read true crime, if there is some part of you that is interested in these things (like me and The Ken and Barbie Murders), then read it. It’s still good, decades later. It’s engaging, it’s different, it’s smart. It was more novel (haha) at the time, but it’s still—at least for me—fresh. And admirable. I will be handing it to my husband, next, and recommending it to my sister.
Note: It contains somewhat graphic descriptions of crimes, and not just the murders. So, if that isn’t gonna work for you, then please don’t read it. It also touches occasionally on pedophilia.
“’Nancy Clutter is always in a hurry, but she always has time. And that’s one definition of a lady’” (p25).
“’Myrt—don’t say things like that. Who shot them?’ / Without pause in her postmarking activities, Mrs. Clare replied, ‘The man in the airplane. The one Herb sued for crashing into his fruit trees. If it wasn’t him, maybe it was you. Or somebody across the street. All the neighbors are rattlesnakes. Varmints looking for a change to slam the door in your face. It’s the same the whole world over. You know that’” (p69).
“In brief, Nye learned only this: ‘Of all the people in the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered’” (p85).
“When it comes to murder, you can’t respect grief. Or privacy. Or personal feelings. You’ve got to ask the questions. And some of them cut deep’” (p85).
“’Hush your meanness,’ said Mrs. Hartman. ‘We’re all in the same boat. Alvin’s doing good as he can’” (p150).
“’Pickin’ the wings off other people’” (p191).
“’I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom’” (p289).
“’He used to say that all crimes were only “varieties of theft”’” (p290).
“’He was just tellin’ the truth,’ Parr said. ‘The truth can be brutal. To coin a phrase’” (p306).
“’Many a man can match sob stories with that little bastard. Me included. Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood’” (p306).
“’Lowell Lee Andrews felt no emotions whatsoever. He considered himself the only important, only significant person in the world. And in his own seclusive world it seemed to him just as right to kill his mother as to kill an animal or a fly’” (p316).
Considering the popularity of the book and the fame of its author, it’s no surprise that there was a movie made in 1967. It sits right up there with reviews around the 75th percentile. (IMDBs over 7 we find to be quite reliable). If you enjoyed reading the book, this is a good companion movie. I think the book was better, and of course some things were changed to fit the format, but especially if you can tolerate older cinema, watch this after reading the book.
There is another movie, too, Capote, about the author. It is much newer and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favorite actors and one I always wished to act for one of my stories, one day, until his early death. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen the movie before, but it gets decent reviews (and I knew I could rely on Hoffman’s acting). This movie (about a real author writing a book that was lightly fictionalized true crime) is supposed to be fabricated, but in an attempt to be true to Truman Capote as a person. We have now gone down the rabbit hole, Alice.
This is one of those movies that I watched while on my phone. I almost always do this for one reason: fact-checking. I watched, I researched. I watched, I researched. Hoffman played Capote pitch-perfect (I looked at some old TV interviews). And from what I can tell, there is some truth to what went down, here. Capote did befriend one of the murderers especially and it did affect the way he wrote the book. He also made some very dubious decisions which led to, among other things, Lee’s and his relationship falling slowly apart. While reading the book, I had already become aware of Capote’s shadow over the story–like I knew he must be IN THAT ROOM, right? And every once in awhile he is even forced into mentioning himself as “a reporter,” etc. This movie allows us to see his process and his presence more fully, and it is an interesting study on journalism. In fact, if you are studying journalism, watch this movie. If you are a writer, also super interesting, even if the society he ran with is a little jealousy-inducing. And if you like true crime and In Cold Blood, aslo worth the watch.