Truman Capote’s Timeless Chronicle
You’re sleeping soundly next to the love of your life like every other night in your life, the children in bed hours ago and not a sound to be heard. Suddenly you wake up to the sound of glass shattering, a window sliding open, and slow heavy footsteps in the living room.
You grab your revolver, and head out to confront whatever is waiting for you out there… at which point, the intruder can either take these few precious moments to flee, lest they meet their maker by your lead. That’s how pretty much all of us hope a break-in goes, if we ever have the misfortune of dealing with one that is.
While robbers certainly have a lot to fear in a country where you’re likelier to stumble on someone carrying a gun than not, in practice things can turn out horrifically different, as they did for the Clutter family on November 15th, 1959.
The tragic events that took place that day in the town of Holcomb, Kansas have been covered in many different mediums from a wide variety of angles, but ultimately, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood became the definitive account of the events, at least for the majority of people.
The author’s idea with this book was to recount a novelized version of the events while preserving factual accuracy; in other words, he sought to tell a true story while structuring it like a novel. While the practice is a rather common one today, writing a non-fiction novel back then meant taking a very different direction, but it certainly paid off starting from the first pages.
The Devil is in the Details
Capote uses an extremely eloquent and detailed prose to not only take us through the tragic events of that night, but also to introduce us to the would-be victims, the world they lived in and what their daily lives looked like. He places an enormous amount of emphasis on getting the reader to empathize with the family, to see them not as some random strangers but rather as fellow countrymen, friends, and ultimately human beings.
Capote understood better than anyone the importance of humanizing the victims of a tragedy and shining all the possible light on them, tapping into our inner instinct to care about those who suffer and our longing for fairness and justice in the world. Even before the terrible events take place, we already feel a real emotional connection to those people, and are all the more sorry for what they are going to experience.
Once Capote introduces us to the family as intimately as possible, he delves into the territory of the four murders and the investigation that followed. Though it may be a non-fiction novel, the account of these events remains rather factual and Capote doesn’t hold back in the slightest.
He communicates these events in all of their physical, emotional and psychological horror, and from that point the book takes on an appropriately heavy kind of atmosphere that makes it all as difficult to digest now as it was back then… and that’s perhaps one of the book’s greatest strengths.
I’d venture to say that Capote is one of the very few true crime writers who makes us forget that the events he’s talking about took place decades ago; he makes it feel like it all happened yesterday.
Disputes on Factuality
Now, there is a point about In Cold Blood that needs to be addressed, and it’s the author’s claim that every word in the book is true. As it turned out, over the years some people put that claim to the test, and it became apparent that there are some embellishments, misrepresentations, and fabrications.
For instance, the lead investigator on the Clutter case, Alvin Dewey Jr., said that the scene where he visited the family’s grave is fabricated, and some of Capote’s interviewees were misquoted. There seems to be a general agreement that the book is not completely immaculately factual.
However, with that being said, Alvin Dewey Jr. himself claims that the rest of the book is indeed factually accurate, especially in regards to how the murders were committed, the impact they had on the community, and the investigation that came with it.
In other words, Capote injected his imagination into inconsequential moments, undoubtedly to give the book more emotional impact and make it more engaging from a narrative perspective.
It may be a questionable practice, but at the end of the day, all the important facts are untouched… and to be fair, I believe it makes the narration more noteworthy, which in turn contributes heavily to preserving our memory of this tragedy.
Some Last Words
To sum it all up, In Cold Blood is arguably Truman Capote’s most influential work, and for very good reasons. Despite the case that he made a few small things up, the author’s account of the events is the most complete and significant one you can find; it will tug on your emotional strings, take you deep into the psychological aspects of the crime, and factually educate you from a historical perspective… all while being narrated like a regular novel.
If you want to learn about the Clutter family case and see for yourself why Capote is one of the 20th century’s most celebrated authors, then I urge you to get your hands on this book.
(September 30, 1924 – August 25, 1984)
Truman Capote was an American actor, playwright, screenwriter and celebrated author who is mainly recognized for the literary classics Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. His novels, stories and plays have been adapted in over twenty different films.