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Truman Capote's In Cold Blood: A new introduction | reviews, news & interviews

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood: A new introduction

Truman Capote's In Cold Blood: A new introduction

Novelist Rupert Thomson's introduction to a new edition of Capote's masterpiece

Toby Jones in 'Infamous' as 'a new Capote - surprisingly tough, almost hard-boiled'

Following the fanfare that accompanied the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965, Truman Capote, ever the consummate self-publicist, claimed to have written a book that was truly different and original - even, perhaps, the first of its kind.

For many critics, the “non-fiction novel”, as Capote was calling it, belonged to a tradition dating back to Daniel Defoe’s The Storm (1704), in which Defoe used the voices of real people to tell his story, a tradition that boasted many exponents, among them Mark Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, James Agee and Lillian Ross. But Capote was adamant that his own blend of “immaculately factual” reportage and fictional techniques represented the discovery of a new form, and this insistence tallied with Capote’s “quest to be self-generated”, as Harold Bloom puts it, not related to Faulkner, Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers, not influenced by any other writer, in fact, but a talent in his own right, unique and unprecedented in the world of American letters.

Capote had exploded onto the literary scene with short fictions that exhibited a retrospective point of view and were admired for their lyrical, crystalline prose. He was, first and foremost, an exquisite stylist - “the most perfect writer of my generation”, as Mailer called him. Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951) were carefully wrought examples of Swamp Gothic, unashamedly ornate, lush and impressionistic, and for all its metropolitan sass, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Capote’s third novel, in which he gave us the kooky, amoral Holly Golightly, also had its roots in the Deep South. Yet, even early on, and despite phenomenal success, Capote seemed conscious of the need to push his writing in new directions. “My favorite thing”, Diane Arbus once said, “is to go where I’ve never been.” Capote, one feels sure, would have subscribed to both a literal and a figurative reading of her words. He wanted, as he said, “to do something else”, and In Cold Blood gave him the opportunity, allowing him to ditch his attachment to childhood and nostalgia, the literature of the backward glance, and to immerse himself in something that was both current and universal. At the same time, he largely dispensed with his breathless, gossamer sentences, which often teetered on the brink of preciousness and whimsy, and ushered in a style that was much leaner and more sinewy: “Dick! Smooth. Smart ... Christ, it was incredible how he could 'con a guy'." This was a new Capote - surprisingly tough, almost hard-boiled.


He had cut his non-fiction teeth on two extended pieces, both written in the mid-Fifties. The Muses are Heard, published in The New Yorker in 1956, chronicled a trip to the Soviet Union by the Everyman Opera, who were touring with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and showcased razorsharp observation and a tone of voice that ranged from the playful to the acidic. In "The Duke in His Domain", published the following year, and still considered a milestone in the history of celebrity profiles, Capote interviewed Marlon Brando on location in Kyoto. Here, too, Capote displayed uncanny journalistic skills, capturing even the most languid and enigmatic of subjects - Brando in his pomp - and eliciting the kinds of confidences that left the actor reflecting ruefully on his “unutterable foolishness”. The two pieces of reportage Capote wrote for William Shawn, his editor at The New Yorker, were deliberate dress rehearsals for a far more ambitious undertaking. He saw journalism as a horizontal form, skimming over the surface of things, topical but ultimately throwaway, while fiction could move horizontally and vertically at the same time, the narrative momentum constantly enhanced and enriched by an incisive, in-depth plumbing of context and character.

In treating a real-life situation as a novelist might, Capote aimed to combine the best of both literary worlds to devastating effect. He found his subject quite by chance, buried deep in The New York Times. A family of four - the Clutters - had been shot to death in an isolated Midwestern farmhouse in the early hours of 15 November, 1959. Though the crime in itself did not interest Capote especially - ”the subject matter”, he said, “was purely incidental” - he instinctively understood that the killings had a mythical or universal quality, and that “murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time”. William Shawn agreed to back the project in return for first-publication rights, and Capote and his friend Harper Lee left for Holcomb, Kansas, three days later, arriving in time for the funeral. “When you travel”, Wim Wenders once said, “the eyes are more wide awake.” (Pictured below, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as Capote and Lee in Capote).

capote2The village of Holcomb is located in the exact middle of the United States, as far from the sophisticated east and west coasts as it is possible to be. “As strange to me”, Capote said later, in Life magazine, “as if I’d gone to Peking.” It was the ideal environment in which to test his new appetite for reportage, and he was both astonished and galvanized by the sheer, paradoxical exoticism of the place. Capote’s jackdaw eye gathered precise, jewelled, almost hyper-real detail - from the easterly wind stirring the elm trees on the track leading to the Clutters’ farmhouse to the corpses lying in the Phillips’ Funeral Home in Garden City, their heads encased in sparkling white cotton, and swollen to twice the size of blown-up balloons - while his ear rapidly tuned in to local speech patterns, alive to every nuance, every rhythm. But there was another crucial factor. Like the yellow Santa Fe express that regularly thundered past Holcomb, “drama had never stopped there”, as Capote put it; he was covering the first-ever drama in a quintessentially undramatic place, and there was no one better equipped for the job.

Within days of the murders, both Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, Bobby, and Alfred Stoecklein, the Clutters’ hired man, had been cleared as suspects, but as Capote blithely told Alvin Dewey, the supervising investigator, “It really doesn’t make any difference to me if the case is ever solved or not.” His intention was to produce a tightly controlled forensic piece that examined the effects of a savage, senseless killing on an obscure community, and what interested him at the outset was the climate of wariness and suspicion, the insomnia, the loss of faith, the dread. In the words of Nancy’s best friend, Susan Kidwell, he was watching the locals discover that “life isn’t one long basketball game”.

'The multiple murders represented a sudden, horrifying collision of two wildly divergent Americas'


All the same, it seems naïve to suppose that one could carry out such an examination without considering people’s desire for justice and retribution, and only a few weeks after Capote’s arrival in Kansas, the arrest of two small-time crooks, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, and their subsequent confessions, radically altered both the angle and the scale of his undertaking. As late as 1962, Capote was still sticking to his original script - in public, at least. “My book isn’t a crime story,” he told Newsweek. “It’s the story of a town.” By then, however, he knew the two murderers were central to the story he wanted to tell, that they would give it texture, urgency and shape. He was writing the book in brief, self-contained sections, which he kept in a box like pieces of a mosaic, and as he began to fit them together he found himself exploiting classic crime-genre techniques in order to create resonance and heighten suspense. This is particularly apparent early on, in the tense, cinematic inter-cutting between the killers and their victims: as Herb Clutter, the rural patriarch, consumes his usual breakfast of an apple and a glass of milk, “unaware that it would be his last”, and his daughter Nancy lays out her velveteen dress for church, “the dress in which she was to be buried”, the two ex-cons are racing across the wheat plains of the Midwest in their black Chevrolet sedan, Hickock high on Orange Blossoms, Smith crunching handfuls of aspirin for his grotesquely injured legs. Fortunately for Capote, the murderers were not locals, as had originally been supposed. On the contrary, Smith and Hickock symbolized the feckless, degenerate underbelly of the country, the absolute antithesis of Holcomb’s God-fearing and law-abiding citizens. Capote’s brilliantly atmospheric, sordidly glittery account of the “long ride”, as the wanted men drifted from Kansas City to Acapulco to Miami in the weeks leading up to their arrest, supplied the perfect foil to his spare, tight-lipped depiction of a community in shock. The multiple murders represented a sudden, horrifying collision of two wildly divergent Americas. If, as he claimed, Capote had his heart set on making a “Big Work”, then this was more than he could ever have hoped for.

While the first-person viewpoint had suited the frothy, waspish The Muses are Heard, Capote was aware that it would capsize a longer, more complex narrative. He knew he had to “get the damn writer out of the way”. This was one of the book’s great challenges, and he employed any number of literary devices to achieve his objective. The most obvious strategy was to allow his artfully condensed transcriptions of interviews with key witnesses to stand on their own, with all their arcane idioms and gamey turns of phrase. The introductory or clarifying phrases he employed - "he said to an acquaintance”, “he was to testify the next day”, or even, rather more transparently, “he subsequently informed a journalist” - sound clunky in isolation, but it is testament to Capote’s skill that they soon become invisible: the eye simply skates over them. The resulting monologues feel unmediated and foster a real sense of authenticity; the story appears to be coming straight from the horse’s mouth.

infamous02Capote also handed certain sections to the detective, Alvin Dewey, most notably during the trial. More controversially, perhaps, he elected to report from within, as though he had a direct line to people’s thought processes, especially in the case of Smith and Hickock; later he would claim to have known them “better than they knew themselves”. For all his technical accomplishment, however, Capote’s campaign to remove himself from the text was only partially successful. As John Hersey, author of Hiroshima, once said, “There is no such thing as objective reportage - the moment the recorder chooses nine facts out of ten he colors the information with his views.” In his deft manipulation of the facts and impressions that he had gathered, Capote’s hand is there for all to see. But there is another deeper and more troubling level on which he achieves a kind of visibility - namely, in his covert yet increasingly palpable identification with the criminals themselves, and in particular with Perry Smith. (Pictured aboveToby Jones as Capote and Daniel Craig as Smith in Infamous).

Initially, the murderers appear as physical and psychological anomalies - Capote juxtaposes Smith’s stocky weightlifter’s torso with feet that “would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady’s dancing slippers”, while Hickock’s face was “composed of mismatching parts... as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center” - but if they were monstrous they were also, necessarily, human. Committed to the vertical approach, Capote was at pains to present each of the men in three dimensions, and in researching Smith’s back story he discovered disturbing echoes of his own past life: they both had promiscuous, alcoholic mothers and incompetent, largely absent fathers; they were both brought up in foster-homes; they were both ridiculed as children - Capote for his effeminacy, Smith for his Cherokee blood and his bed-wetting. Capote clearly identified with this “chunky, misshapen child-man”. As Gerald Clarke, Capote’s biographer, puts it, “In Perry he recognized his shadow, his dark side, the embodiment of his own accumulated angers and hurts.” Though he prized coolness and objectivity, Capote found it impossible not to reveal where his sympathies lay. It was in his rendering of Perry Smith, curiously, that he found true pathos - there is a stunningly telling image of Smith returning to his Kansas City flophouse after the murders and collapsing face-down on his bed, “as though sleep were a weapon that had struck him from behind” - but even on the most basic level of characterization he seems to load the dice: Hickock comes across as mean, cocky and deviant, whereas Smith is a consistently haunting and bewildered presence. When Capote claimed that Smith could have stepped right out of one of his stories, it was because Smith resembled Capote’s imaginative projection of himself: they were both outsiders, freaks. Small wonder, then, if Smith became the emotional lynchpin of Capote’s book, walking an electric, almost supernatural line between non-fiction and fiction, despite the fact that he was real. Small wonder if, in the end, it was Smith’s cold-blooded execution, and not the Clutters’ murder, which gave the work its title.

'He was beside himself with anxiety and frustration, willing Smith and Hickock to be executed so he could finish what he had started'

 The difficulty with non-fiction often lies in the resolution. Life, being messy and open-ended, tends to withhold solace. Once Smith and Hickock had been executed, Alvin Dewey expected to experience release, the sense of “a design justly completed”, but he felt nothing of the kind. This was Capote’s problem, too: the completion of the design was something the book itself had to accomplish. Though he had prided himself throughout on his accuracy, he nevertheless decided to break his own rules by providing a fictionalized ending - Dewey’s coincidental springtime encounter with Susan Kidwell in the Garden City graveyard some four years after the murders. Life goes on, Capote seems to be saying. Cries become whispers. Criticized for sentimentality, his only defence was to argue that the idea of ending with the executions had struck him as too brutal. “I felt I had to return to the town, to bring everything back full circle, to end with peace.”
In Cold Blood brought Capote fame and riches - "Book in a New Form Earns $2 Million for Truman Capote” ran a New York Times headline at the time - and even though, much to his chagrin, the book did not land him the Pulitzer Prize, it guaranteed his place in the American literary canon. Yet, arguably, he never again wrote anything of substance, and his death in 1984, at the age of 59, was accompanied by a feeling of shortfall. The perfect writer, in Mailer’s phrase, had failed to realize his potential.

Faulkner identified the essential amorality of the writer when he famously said that he will rob, borrow, beg or steal from anybody and everybody to get his work done. Capote offers living proof. At the outset, he claimed that the murder of the Clutters was irrelevant, simply the trigger for a potential masterpiece, but before too long he was beside himself with anxiety and frustration, willing Smith and Hickock to be executed so he could finish what he had started. “Will H & S live to a ripe and happy old age,” he said to Alvin Dewey bitterly in 1963, “or will they swing, and make a lot of other folks very happy indeed?” Capote was, of course, one of those “other folks”. That In Cold Blood has literary merit is not in doubt - 45 years on, it remains as vivid and unsettling as ever - but what makes it unforgettable, perhaps, is the portrait it paints of the eerie, unspoken contract that exists between the observer and the observed, and the trade-off that can occur when the two become too intimate, a Faustian pact in which they both ultimately stand to lose as much as they have gained. “No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me,” Capote once said. “It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me.”

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote with an introduction by Rupert Thomson is published by The Folio Society and can be purchased online, by telephone at 0207 400 4200 or at The Folio Society Bookshop, 44 Eagle Street, London WC1R 4FS

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