I was quite long in the tooth as a journalist when I chanced upon In Cold Blood, sometime in the Nineties. The little I knew about the author, Truman Capote, had more to do with the delicious Audrey Hepburn and her oversize dark glasses and her impossibly long cigarette holders in the Hollywood version of his Breakfast at Tiffany’s but I had no clue to the real source of Capote’s renown: his “non-fiction novel” (as he called it), namely, In Cold Blood.
Published precisely fifty years ago, in January 1966, it was an instant sensation. And there has been never a dull moment since. As Britain’s Guardian newspaper noted then, “Whatever its merits, In Cold Blood is already more than a book: it is a happening.” Fame and notoriety came hand in hand, with sales skyrocketing from day one but controversy dogging him till his last days (Capote died in 1984, days before he turned 60) and refuses to die down even today. The book is still in print, routinely making it to “best 100” lists of leading newspapers and magazines, several movies and TV serials have ensued and more are in the offing.
Re-reading it this week, it is astonishing how fresh it still is, so poignant, and so relevant, even for someone sitting in India. To begin with, it is a straightforward crime story, about the senseless murder of an ordinary, upstanding family of four, the Clutters, in a village in dull, placid middle America (or, to quote from the book, “Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there”) by two petty criminals who had heard from a fellow jailbird that there was a safe full of money in their house for the taking which turned out to be not at all the case, Mr Clutter preferring to transact all his business by cheque, but determined to leave “no witnesses” the duo kill Mr Clutter, his wife and teenage son and daughter anyway for less than a fistful of dollars. No one hears or sees the killers, they make their getaway, but are finally caught, convicted and hanged to death.
It sounds routine, almost banal put like this, but not in the hands of Truman Capote. He turns it into a gripping, truly unputdownable tale, with meticulous descriptions and dialogues recreating the lives of the killers and the victims (e.g. an exchange between the brother and sister on the morning of their murder: “‘Good grief, Kenyon. I hear you!’ As usual, the devil was in Kenyon. His shouts kept coming up the stairs: ‘Nancy! Telephone!’ Barefoot, pajama-clad, Nancy scampered down the stairs...” – there are fly in the wall accounts like this on almost every page), the two scenarios running parallel, intercut expertly. The investigation, the trial, the killers’ days, years in fact thanks to appeal after appeal, in death row, and the actual hanging (in Capote’s presence) are recorded in spine-chilling detail. The full title of the book is, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences.
And that is what makes this story so spectacular, that word “true” in the title. It was based on a real-life event that Capote spotted on page 39 of the 16 November, 1959, issue of the New York Times, a 291-word report headlined ‘Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain’. Two weeks later he was on his way to Holcomb, Kansas, made infamous by these killings. His companion on this expedition was his childhood friend, Harper Lee of To Kill a Mocking Bird fame. So no character, no event, no description in the book is a figment of the writer’s imagination. “All the material in this book not derived from my own observation,” Capote writes at the outset, “is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with the persons directly concerned, more often than not numerous interviews conducted over a considerable period of time.”
For me, this was a blinding revelation as to the possibilities of journalism. So much can be known from painstaking, dogged legwork. Capote spent six years researching this book yet he never thrusts himself to the foreground, in fact, he doesn’t figure in the book at all. Nor is he at all judgmental. He neither sneers at self-made, secure, smug middle class America nor disparages the rootless, poor, misbegotten of America, the two sides that clash in his story. He takes no stand on capital punishment either, recording the various positions through the people in his story, from the condemned killers to the lawyers and judges to the God-fearing village folk whose lives were turned upside down by that horrific event. Little wonder Capote reportedly told his biographer, “No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me.”
Yet, it is this claim to the truth that caused him all the headaches in his lifetime and shows no signs of abating still. It is not just the book that has fascinated the literati over the years, but also the process of its creation. There have been periodic revelations about Capote’s novelistic license, questioning his claim to be “immaculately factual”. Two films in recent years (Capote in 2005 which also won Philip Seymour Hoffman playing the author the Oscar for best actor and Infamous in 2006) were based not on the book but on its making.
Now, another book on “what really happened” is scheduled to be published this year to “expose” the many inaccuracies and distortions in In Cold Blood. It is being written by the son of one of the investigators of the case, based on his father’s notes and papers for which he got permission from the courts this December. Some pages from the documents that will go into the making of this book have already made their way into the press and do not cast Capote in a favourable light.
The case’s chief investigator, however, had given his seal of approval to Capote’s book, giving it the badge of accuracy to most, then and now. It must also be true that Capote did, as do all narrators, select and arrange his material in a manner that best suited his story-line. That is how all writers organise disparate information to fashion an absorbing tale. That does not mean he manufactured evidence, it only means he used his imagination and creative powers to bring dull information to life. Whatever the new expose reveals, it is unlikely to substantially alter the thrust of Capote’s book. Rather, it will once again establish what has long been true: the fascination with the backstory of In Cold Blood is a measure of its greatness that no amount of backbiting can take away.