In 1966, Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood was published. This creative account of Kansas’ 1959 Clutter murders instilled fear; it raised hackles — and even though it trampled on ethics and our basic comprehension of truth, it would tear open the earth and drop the seed for what we know today as creative non-fiction. Capote, a journalist first, novelist second, calls In Cold Blood his best work, but also his most laborious and disturbing one. He rarely took notes, but rather conversed with witnesses and then recorded what he could remember later. Granted, his mind was sharp from years of memorizing phone book entries, but he admits he may have only gotten 95 percent of the accounts right. The surviving Clutters wouldn’t be so kind. They later reported that an entire scene was imagined (or fabricated) and that many details, including their mother’s lunacy, were exaggerated for drama’s sake. Near completion of the work, Capote vomited daily. He developed an affinity for one of the killers. He watched (or tried to watch) both murderers die by hanging.
I don’t doubt for a moment that In Cold Blood molests the truth, but it was truly groundbreaking in its introduction of creativity into the stark reality of news. Its sentences creep into the mind and metastasize with grips that remain long after the final, chilling page is finished. It would have been one of the best novels I’d ever read — except that it’s not quite a novel. Capote, after being attacked, dubbed In Cold Blood as a “non-fiction novel.” I think that’s Swahili for “I’m a renegade,” “I’ve been caught,” or “Sorry, the check’s already been cut.”
I thought I had to read this true crime novel when my writers’ group friend recommended it as a study on rhythm writing. I knew I had to read it when another friend who has played guitar with Willie Nelson (without rehearsal), performed regularly with David Allan Coe’s band, owned and captained a wooden sailing ship, taught literature to high school students, adopted a child after the age of 55, and is, to me, utterly fearless, said the Kansas killing had “scared him shitless.” (He lived within 50 miles of the murders in 1959).
Sure, In Cold Blood bends the truth. But does that mean I can’t respect the liar’s affinity for words or for telling a “killer” story? My opinion is blurred. Do ethics make for good writing? Do the publishing ends ever justify the writing means? Could Capote have put this much horror into a novel without witnessing all that he had? Could he have so richly recounted the story without his embellishments? I don’t know.
I can’t throw a stone at a dead man (let the sinless writer cast the first one). Even if Capote were alive, I might still trample a few reporters to get his autograph; his work is that compelling to me. Try In Cold Blood for yourself. At the moment you crack it open, tell yourself the story isn’t true. Then, as you progress, try to put the signature Capote “fiction” out of your mind.