‘In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences’ by Truman Capote outlines the investigation into the murders of farmer Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie and two of their teenage children at their home in Kansas in November 1959. After reading a short news article in the New York Times about the killings, Capote travelled to the small town of Holcomb with his friend, Harper Lee, where he undertook extensive research and interviewed hundreds of people who lived in the area or were involved in the case including the chief investigator, Alvin Dewey, and eventually the murderers themselves.
Although Capote is perhaps still best known today for his novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, it was ‘In Cold Blood’ which truly made his name when it was serialised in 1965 and published as a book the following year. What makes ‘In Cold Blood’ stand out as a seminal work is Capote’s cool journalistic prose which offers chilling insight into the minds of the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Much of the book focuses on their family backgrounds and the impact of events from their childhood. In his deftly drawn character studies, Capote ultimately portrays Hickock and Smith as flawed individuals rather than monsters but without glossing over the horrific nature of their crimes or going as far as provoking sympathy towards them. Overall, his impartial account avoids sensationalism and is far more powerful and effective than any number of hysterical headlines.
The Penguin Modern Classics edition of ‘In Cold Blood’ classifies it as non-fiction and I found the copy I read in the non-fiction True Crime section of the library. However, it has also been featured in The Guardian’s list of 100 best novels and there have been some recent claims that certain parts of the account were completely fictionalised including the final scene where Dewey visits the Clutter’s graves. Capote himself described ‘In Cold Blood’ as a “non-fiction novel” which is definitely the most accurate description for what has been achieved here. From crime scene to death row, he structured a plot around the events of the case and drawn characters from the people involved, thus producing a thoroughly engaging and suspenseful narrative based on true events.
Whatever its genre, ‘In Cold Blood’ is a classic and innovative work of true crime which still resonates strongly over fifty years after it was first published. An essential book for any serious reader.