In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
With this book, Truman Capote claims to have invented a new genre of writing, the nonfiction novel. This particular genre, which is an admittedly compelling way to examine a true crime situation like the story here, has had a complicated and controversial history, starting from this book, because of the unfortunate tendency of writers (including Capote) to neglect the nonfiction aspects of the nonfiction novel. It often happens that to novelize is to fictionalize, and so while this book is certainly based on a true story, it does not quite meet the level of veracity that the author would wish it to be seen as. And that presents the reader of this book with some issues in terms of how this book is to be judged. To the extent that the reader is able to appreciate the novelistic touches and to concede that the dialogue in this book is highly imaginative and that the portrayal of the case and its solving is colored by the sources used by the author, there is a lot to enjoy here, if one finds the narrative to be interesting, which I do. Some readers, of course, will find the fictional elements and the slanted perspective of the author too much to take, though.
This book is the edited combination of four large essays that were written for the New Yorker by novelist Truman Capote that deal with the murder of four members of the Clutter family by two drifters who had themselves recently been let out of prison and who were looking to fund their delusional dreams of a better life as they passed bad checks and sought easy money. In weaving the tale of the Clutters, the author comments on the dumb luck of the patriarch of the family purchasing a life insurance policy just before being brutally murdered, vividly portrays the flirtatious teenage daughter who is killed shortly after spending time with her boyfriend, who her father did not entirely trust. There are compelling if disturbing looks at the behavior of the two killers and their psychological dynamic as they sought to engage in petty thievery to support a lifestyle of idle traveling. And then there is the look at how the crime was solved thanks to a prison informer given the few clues that were available until the investigation had gone on a long time and there is even a small hint of what appears to have been a possible additional murder committed by the Clutter killers in Florida while they were on the lam from Kansas. And substantial time is spent looking at the confession of the murders in Los Vegas and how this hindered their defense and how they spent time on death row.
There are at least a few elements of this book that are particularly interesting to the reader, and among them is the witnessing of the self-serving arguments of the murderers and their ability to find people willing to defend their interests in avoiding responsibility. Capote’s offense, in the eyes of the contemporary left (which has spent a fair amount of effort attempting to debunk the book), appears to be his unwillingness to accept the victim-blaming and attempts to dodge personal responsibility on the part of the criminals, and in his discussion of the way that the criminal class operates. And while it is easy to find things to criticize about Capote and his book, the way he points to the responsibility of the criminals for their own actions and gives powerful voice to the refusal to accept self-serving efforts to cast off blame on imperfect parents is very praiseworthy and excellent and makes the book well worth reading and considering as a foundational effort in the true crime genre. For there to be a true crime book, there must be a crime, some effort to uncover the truth about it, and inevitably questions of blame arise in such matters. This book does a good job at addressing those concerns in a compelling fashion, looking at the context of the crime and taking the reader to the point where crime is shown to not pay, at least for the murderers of the Clutter family.