Truman Capote: In Cold Blood

On the 15th of November 1959, Mr. and Mrs. Clutter, their son Kenyon and daughter Nancy, were murdered in their farm house in Holcomb, Kansas. The two men responsible for their deaths, Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, were executed by hanging five and a half years later. The gallows from which they were hanged is still in possession of the Kansas State Historical Society.

The events of that fatal November night shook up the public opinion. As Tony Tanner said: it was “the American dream turning into the American nightmare”. The Clutters were a respectable Methodist family who thanks to their hard work and perseverance managed to establish a successful and very prosperous farm. Unfortunately, their wealth had drawn the attention of the two young criminals. ‘Dick’ had heard that Mr. Clutter kept a big sum of money in a safe in his office.  He told Perry, his former fellow prisoner, that the robbery of the Clutters’ house would be “a sure-fire cinch” (In Cold Blood). The plan was to get into the house, steal the money and flee to Mexico to turn their broken lives into a dream-come-true. The plan also included ‘no witnesses’, and so the story follows.

When Truman Capote, the famous American writer known, among others, for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, came across the story of the Clutters, he decided to write a book about it. His aim was to produce a nonfiction novel, a genre never truly explored before, except for Rodolfo Walsh’s 1957 book Operación Masacre. The thing characteristic for the nonfiction novel is its “oxymoronic nature – its mixing of reality and fiction, of journalist and novelist, of factuality and imagination” (Robert Siegle and Capote, Capote’s “Handcarved Coffins” and the Nonfiction Novel, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1984). In an interview with George Plimpton, asked how he decided it was the subject suitable for his book, Capote said: “I didn’t. Not immediately. But after reading the story it suddenly struck me that a crime, the study of one such, might provide the broad scope I needed to write the kind of book I wanted to write. Moreover, the human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time.” (M. Thomas Inge, Truman Capote: Conversations).

The book, being a nonfiction novel, required thorough research. Therefore, shortly after learning about the Holcomb mass murder, Capote and his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, set off for Kansas, where Capote interviewed many local people as well as investigators assigned to the case. In order for the interviews to be more spontaneous and truthful, Capote did not use any recording equipment. Instead, he used his self-developed technique, which he called ‘the human tape recorder’. In the 1968 interview for Playboy, Eric Norden asked Capote about this technique: “ You have said, “In 1955 I began to develop a theory that I could become a human tape recorder. I practiced over a period of two years and I ended with a high proportion of accuracy.” In Cold Blood certainly demonstrates your talent as an interviewer and researcher; but in the process of becoming a recorder rather than an interpreter of events, isn’t there a danger of sacrificing one dimension of your creativity and becoming a journalist rather than a novelist?”, to which Capote replied: “ The two disciplines, at their highest level, are not mutually exclusive; if I hadn’t thought it possible that journalism and novelistic technique could be artistically wedded, I never would have set out on my experiment in the first place. As for my being a “human tape recorder”, I’ve always had what amounts to the auditory version of a photographic memory, and all I did was perfect this gift. This is great importance in the kind of reportage I do, because it is absolutely fatal to ever take a note or use a tape recorder when you interview somebody. Most people are quite unsophisticated about being interviewed, and if you erect any kind of mechanical barrier, it destroys the mood and inhibits people from talking freely.” (Inge)

Capote used the same technique in his interviews with the subject criminals. He did it for several years until the day of their execution. Rumour has it that he eventually developed a very close relationship with Perry Smith, which is probably true. Long hours spent face to face with the criminal allowed him to get an insight into Perry’s more human side. In the 2005 movie, Capote, this relationship is portrayed as one of great impact on the writer’s psyche. To some extent we can talk here of a case of the Stockholm syndrome, maybe not in a direct sense as such, but with a similar kind of effect on the victim, which in this case turned out to be Capote himself. Perry, on the other hand, either dead or alive, became Capote’s ultimate oppressor. In order for the book to be finished, Perry had to die, and thus leave Capote in a state of grief and psychological trauma. However, if he was to be kept alive, as there were certain steps taken to take him off the death row, then this would mean that Capote could never finish the book and be destroyed as a writer. By allowing himself to be drawn into this situation, Capote did not realise that his nonfiction novel would indeed obliterate the boundaries between life and fiction and leave such a huge scar on his personal life.

In Cold Blood turned out to be one of the biggest best-sellers at the time and earned around $6 million in the 1960s only