100 Best Novels Guardian list, 20th century Literature, Booker Prizewinner, Crime, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, 1966

Read in Abacus edition.

This non-fiction novel (Capote’s term for it) describes the murder of the Clutter family, a mid-Western American family, and the subsequent arrest, conviction, and execution of their killers, Hickock and Smith.

It’s a banal and senseless murder, and despite the meticulous way it is reconstructed by Capote he never really gets close to explaining why the killing took place. The motive is one sense is quite simple – theft, and an attempt to cover their tracks – no witnesses – but it takes a certain deranged quality to murder four helpless people ‘in cold blood’, and it is that aspect of the killings that remains elusive. Towards the end of the book Capote hints at the possibility that Smith, the actual killer of all four family members, was triggered to commit the killings by some resemblance between the first of the family to die, the father, Herb, and an authority figure in his (Smith’s) past, but the idea is only mentioned in passing and is not followed through.

A non-fiction novel is arguably a contradiction in terms – novels are by their nature works of imagination. Of course many novels take as their starting point something factual, either in the public domain or the author’s personal lives, so in one sense Capote simply takes this idea and develops it. But the reader is left uncertain as to what extent the description of events – including detailed conversations, and accounts of the characters’ thought processes – are ‘as imagined’ by Capote, and which are based upon interviews with the participants and other research. The novel is sub-titled ‘A true account of a multiple murder and its consequences’, and in a short acknowledgements section Capote claims “All the material in this book not derived from my own observation is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with the persons directly concerned, more often than not numerous interviews conducted over a considerable period of time”. But apart from this acknowledgement, Capote erases any trace of himself from this novel – there is never any mention of “when I spoke to him” or “later he told me that…”. In reality this invisibility is misleading – his presence would have had some impact, particularly long after the crime when the appeals process was coming to a conclusion. The ‘support’ of a celebrity writer would have had an impact, and of course people more cynical than me have pointed out that Capote had an interest in the final execution of Smith and Hickock, giving him the ending his novel needed.

My instinct is that wherever possible Capote stuck to the facts, as they could be verified. The killing is banal and there is no attempt to sensationalise it – in some ways quite the opposite, because Hickock’s sexual perversions are glossed over, the executions when they finally come, is over in three or four pages, and while the murders are described in detail, this is done with as much sensitivity as possible in the circumstances. Capote tells the story of the killings murders themselves through Smith’s confession – had the murders been described by anyone else the terror of the victim’s would have been unavoidable, but because he was simply unable to share any real empathy with them it is (slightly) easier to bear.

Without wishing to labour the point, I find the form of this novel uncomfortable. Documentary recreations of crimes, where the known events are supported by evidence of one form or another (‘according to a witness statement’, ‘in evidence, Smith said’, the coroner’s report said, etc.) allow the reader to judge for themselves the extent to which this the report is accurate. Similarly, imaginative recreations where the author attempts to step into the shoes of the characters and capture what it must have felt like to be present and involved in the crime, are another legitimate form. But this is a halfway house between these two forms, where some of the scenes are fictional (Dewey, the lead investigator, is shown at the end of the novel meeting one of Nancy Clutter’s friends at her grave – he subsequently denied that ever happened) and others likely to be based upon conversations and interviews with the participants where their accuracy can never be tested. If the end result gave us an insight into crimes of this kind then the effort could perhaps be justified – but eventually all we learn is the banality of evil.