I am so on the fence about this book that my pants are ripped.
For those unfamiliar with Truman Capote’s classic true crime novel, ‘In Cold Blood’ covers the case of the Clutter Family Murders. Herb Clutter, the patriarch of the family, was a well off farmer in western Kansas. In 1959, he along with his wife and two youngest children were murdered in the middle of the morning in their home by two ex-convicts. The novel starts from the morning before the murders and chronicles through to the deaths of the murderers for their crimes.
‘In Cold Blood’ is arguably Capote’s most famous work. First published in 1966, it’s still one of the best selling true crime novels. He worked, researching and interviewing, on the novel for four years (with aid of Harper Lee, author of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’) and the work obviously shows. Capote goes where many true crime novelists are not even capable of going – having interviewed both murderers in their jail cells after their convictions. However, while the novel is widely praised and still held in high regard as bringing true crime to the mainstream masses, drama inevitably followed. Capote’s claims that the entire novel was “immaculately factual” began to break down as many of the locals portrayed in the novel admitted that they were mischaracterized, misquoted, or a combination of the two. Whole sections of the book were brought into question as being made up by Capote to suit his narrative, as timelines of the book did not match with case files.
I read this novel for my “Summer Reading List” challenge, where I’m trying to read books I merely skimmed for school. This book was for a True Crime course I took in my 4th year of college. I remember my professor discussing the controversy of Capote’s claims. There were apparently rumors that Harper Lee had written a majority of the novel, that Capote had been having an affair with one of the murderers (or in the least wished to) and thus explained his apparent biased towards one over the other, and the debate over if it even matters that passages were exaggerations or fabrications.
So, here in lies my issue.
The novel is beautifully written. That is not an argument. The story is interesting and captivating. The narrative rarely lulls, even as the crime steps back from the forefront of the narrative. However, as this book is listed as a true crime, and Capote claims the details to be factual it’s hard to reconcile a beautifully written piece of work with the inconsistencies between what was written and what actually happened.
The victims of crimes are owed a certain level of respect when it comes to retelling the events of their death. It’s clear, even without knowledge of the inconsistencies, that Capote had biased towards one murderer over the other and was obviously attempting to evoke sympathy towards either one or both of the murderers. In the words of Jake Peralta of Brooklyn 99 “Cool motive, still murder” (and in this case they didn’t even have a cool motive, just poor lives).
A majority of the book is focused on the murderers. After the first 100 pages or so the victims are hardly ever mentioned again. Meanwhile, the murderer’s lives are dissected and discussed thoroughly. Their family histories, dynamics, their past crimes and childhoods are written in detail to try and piece together what sort of lives led to the crimes on the Clutter farm. In truth, it’s interesting to see, to borrow from Netflix, the making of a murderer. However, to attempt to evoke sympathy where really none is deserved is doing the Clutter family a disservice.
With the knowledge that Capote molded aspects of the narrative to suit his perspective, it’s hard to truly praise the work. As a piece of fiction this book would have been phenomenal, but knowing that aspects were fabricated lessens it’s brilliance for me.