Rereading: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

Following the fanfare that accompanied the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965, Truman Capote, ever the consummate self-publicist, claimed to have written a book that was truly different and original – even, perhaps, the first of its kind. For many critics, the "non-fiction novel", as Capote was calling it, belonged to a tradition dating back to Daniel Defoe's The Storm (1704), in which Defoe used the voices of real people to tell his story, a tradition that boasted many exponents, among them Mark Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, James Agee and Lillian Ross. But Capote was adamant that his own blend of "immaculately factual" reportage and fictional techniques represented the discovery of a new form; it tallied with Capote's "quest to be self-generated", as Harold Bloom puts it, not related to Faulkner, Eudora Welty or Carson McCullers, not influenced by any other writer, but a talent in his own right, unique in the world of American letters.

Capote had exploded on to the literary scene with short fictions that exhibited a retrospective point of view. He was, first and foremost, an exquisite stylist – "the most perfect writer of my generation", as Mailer called him. Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951) were carefully wrought examples of swamp gothic – unashamedly ornate, lush and impressionistic, and for all its metropolitan sass, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), Capote's third novel, in which he gave us the kooky, amoral Holly Golightly, also had its roots in the deep south. Yet, even early on, and despite phenomenal success, Capote seemed conscious of the need to push his writing in new directions. He wanted, as he said, "to do something else", and In Cold Blood gave him the opportunity, allowing him to ditch his attachment to childhood and nostalgia, the literature of the backward glance, and to immerse himself in something that was both current and universal. At the same time, he largely dispensed with his breathless, gossamer sentences, which often teetered on the brink of preciousness and whimsy, and ushered in a style that was much leaner and more sinewy: "Dick! Smooth. Smart . . . Christ, it was incredible how he could 'con a guy'." This was a new Capote – surprisingly tough, almost hard-boiled.

He had cut his non-fiction teeth on two extended pieces, both written in the mid-1950s. "The Muses Are Heard", published in the New Yorker in 1956, chronicled a trip to the Soviet Union by the Everyman Opera, which was touring with Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, and showcased razor-sharp observation and a tone of voice that ranged from the playful to the acidic. In "The Duke in His Domain", published the following year, and still considered a milestone in the history of celebrity profiles, Capote interviewed Marlon Brando on location in Kyoto. Here, too, Capote displayed uncanny journalistic skills, capturing even the most languid and enigmatic of subjects – Brando in his pomp – and eliciting the kinds of confidences that left the actor reflecting ruefully on his "unutterable foolishness". Capote saw journalism as a horizontal form, skimming over the surface of things, topical but ultimately throwaway, while fiction could move horizontally and vertically at the same time, the narrative momentum constantly enhanced and enriched by an incisive, in-depth plumbing of context and character. In treating a real-life situation as a novelist might, Capote aimed to combine the best of both literary worlds to devastating effect.

He found his subject quite by chance, buried deep in the New York Times. A family of four – the Clutters – had been shot to death in an isolated Midwestern farmhouse in the early hours of 15 November 1959. Though the crime in itself did not interest Capote especially ("the subject matter", he said, "was purely incidental") he instinctively understood that the killings had a mythical or universal quality, and that "murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time". William Shawn, his editor at the New Yorker, agreed to back the project in return for first-publication rights, and Capote and his friend Harper Lee left for Holcomb, Kansas, three days later, arriving in time for the funeral.

The village of Holcomb is located in the exact middle of the United States, as far from the sophisticated east and west coasts as it is possible to be. Capote's jackdaw eye gathered precise, jewelled, almost hyper-real detail – from the easterly wind stirring the elm trees on the track leading to the Clutters' farmhouse to the corpses lying in the Phillips' Funeral Home in Garden City, their heads encased in sparkling white cotton, and swollen to twice the size of blown-up balloons – while his ear rapidly tuned in to local speech patterns, alive to every nuance, every rhythm. But there was another crucial factor. Like the yellow Santa Fe express that regularly thundered past Holcomb, "drama had never stopped there", as Capote put it.

Within days of the murders, both Nancy Clutter's boyfriend, Bobby, and Alfred Stoecklein, the Clutters' hired man, had been cleared as suspects, but as Capote blithely told Alvin Dewey, the supervising investigator, "It really doesn't make any difference to me if the case is ever solved or not." His intention was to produce a tightly controlled forensic piece that examined the effects of a savage, senseless killing on an obscure community, and what interested him at the outset was the climate of wariness and suspicion, the insomnia, the loss of faith, the dread. In the words of Nancy's best friend, Susan Kidwell, he was watching the locals discover that "life isn't one long basketball game". All the same, it seems naive to suppose that one could carry out such an examination without considering people's desire for justice and retribution, and only a few weeks after Capote's arrival in Kansas, the arrest of two small-time crooks, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, and their subsequent confessions, radically altered both the angle and the scale of his undertaking.

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