In mid-November, 1959, Truman Capote, renowned author of ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ was struck by a newspaper article that appeared in the New York Times. Little more than a brief squib, it outlined the brutal shotgun-slaying of a farmer, his wife, and their two children. It reported that in the small village of Holcomb, Kansas, Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon, had been found bound and murdered, the mother and daughter in their beds, the father and the son in the basement of the home.
Capote, at the time a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, decided that this was the story he next wanted to write about. He left for Kansas almost immediately, taking with him as his ‘researcher and bodyguard’ Nelle Harper Lee, author of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and lifelong friend of Capote’s. As children they had grown up beside one another, and even in Mockingbird, the characters of Dill was supposed to have been based on Capote.
So began one of the most famous and fascinating trips in literary history – the diminutive, effete, homosexual Capote, the methodical and pragmatic Lee.
But the story of how ‘In Cold Blood’ came to be written is not really the subject of this little article. That story has been covered in two recent films – ‘Capote’ (with a deserved Oscar-winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman, and ‘Infamous’ starring Toby Jones). The book itself is the issue at hand, and there are two very simple reasons I have chosen this book above all others. I am of the belief that non-fiction possesses as its primary purpose the conveyance of information, whereas fiction is there not to entertain (as we are so often told), but to evoke an emotion. Those books that continue to stay with me, regardless of how long ago I read them, are those that somehow connected and impinged on an emotional level. I remember being quarantined at boarding school with chicken pox, aged thirteen and sleeping alone in a locked room. Through the porthole window in the door all I could see was a black and white chequerboard-floored corridor, and what did I read while I was there? ‘The Shining’ of all things. Half of it I didn’t understand, the other half scared me witless. That was emotional impingement.
So we have these two elements – non-fiction conveying information, fiction evoking an emotion – and in ‘In Cold Blood’ Capote does both brilliantly.
Even before you begin the book you know that the Clutter family are dead. This is a matter of public record. It is a fact. And yet we begin the book with them alive. A human, real, honest, hardworking, religiously-minded family, helping one another, helping their fellow townsfolk, the bright and talented Nancy, the father - a rock, a pillar of the earth. Capote leads us down a road, a brilliantly constructed road, and as we travel he shows us everything we need to see to become so emotionally involved with this family, this town, these events.
The ending is inevitable, terrible and brutal.
And his protagonists – Hickock and Smith, the brief and breathtaking events of the night of November 15th, 1959, and the subsequent years they spent on Death Row. The way that Capote draws it out, the way he shares their viewpoint with us, the way he opens up this world and shows us all the inhabitants.
A truly remarkable work.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the edges of the longstanding and unresolved question: Who wrote ‘In Cold Blood’? Was it Capote? Was it Lee? Did they write it together? And who wrote ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’? Again, was it Capote, was it Lee, or did they conspire to produce two of the most remarkable books in modern American literature? ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was the only book Harper Lee ever published. We do not know whether it is the only book she ever wrote. It spawned a film that won an Oscar for Gregory Peck. ‘In Cold Blood’ made Capote one of the most respected and influential authors in American literary history, and yet he spent the subsequent twenty years drinking himself to death and never really published another word. Norman Mailer wrote an article about this very issue, and he raised the question: Were they individual authors in their own right as far as these two seminal works were concerned, or did they create them together, and then keep that truth from the world?
Who knows? I believe we will never know. I just know that ‘In Cold Blood’, certainly for any crime author, is perhaps one of the most necessary books to read, and written in an inimitable style, and constructed so well. A work of genius.
Though it is utterly impossible to say ‘This is my favourite book’, I believe that if I was destined to be marooned on a faraway island and could take one book and one book only, then ‘In Cold Blood’ would very likely be first on the list.