- What: In Cold Blood
- Who: Truman Capote
- Pages: 343, soft cover
- Genre: True crime
- Published: 1965
- The lit: of 5 flames
When bright-eyed 18-year-old me started journalism school in 2010, I had zero idea of what kind of magazine journalist I wanted to be. I never really envisioned what writing for a magazine actually looked like. It could have been sports, travel, or anything, though for the world’s sake, probably not makeup or fashion; it didn’t matter as long as I was writing.
Then I took my advanced writing capstone with a truly talented professor and writer (thanks for everything, Dr. Hinnant!), and I realized my future belonged to long-form, which I didn’t even know was a thing until the first day of that class. I became enthralled by the works of Jennifer Gonnerman, Tom Junod, Anne Fadiman, and Robert Sanchez (#humblebrag: I actually interned at the same magazine as the latter). I didn’t just admire them; I wanted to be them.
OK fast forward six years, and that clearly didn’t happen. I’ve never forgotten the impact it had — and still continues to have — on my life though. I still love reading long-form and still appreciate all the time and effort that goes into turning real-life events into the most-fascinating stories about the human experience. It’s why I can now add one more name to that list above: Truman Capote.
In Cold Blood sits on a certain pedestal and rightfully so. Capote clearly defines everything I love about long-form in this book: the details, the emotions, the power to force us into uncomfortable but necessary gray areas, and *swoon* the storytelling. His craft is unmatched, and it’s no wonder that this book is often considered quintessential long-form journalism — even if its journalistic integrity has been called into question a time or two.
Small-town Holcomb, Kan. was flipped upside down on Nov. 15, 1959, when four members of the beloved Clutter family were slain in their own home with little evidence and zero enemies for a motive. This tragedy fascinated writer Truman Capote, who traveled to Kansas before the mystery was solved. He conducted numerous interviews with friends and family of the Clutters, detectives involved with the case, residents of the small town and surrounding area, experts, and even the murderers themselves.
Capote stayed with the case for years, and his research eventually recreated the full story of the quadruple murder, starting with character histories and finishing with the executions of the accused. In doing so, he pioneered the true crime genre while making a journalistic feat seem easy.
“As long as you live, there’s always something waiting; and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do? You can’t stop living.” — In Cold Blood
The most prominent characteristic about In Cold Blood is that it doesn’t read like research; it’s the exact opposite in fact. Only the absence of clichés makes this book appear as nonfiction. Capote elevated the suspense on page one, and it never faltered, making this a true page-turner. He did this by never elaborating on the actual crime details, including the how and why, until they were realized by the real-life characters in the story.
Talk about patience.
Yes, it becomes clear early on who the killers are because they are the main characters; however, the narrator is not omniscient, and the reader only has the details that the supporting cast has.
In making the murderers the main characters, Capote also made his book somewhat of a psychological thriller. This is where long-form can be so effective and powerful. Despite afflicting such horror on a family and a town, the killers had stories and histories too, and Capote conveyed those. He detailed how two men could have become so broken to kill four innocent people and how trauma and mental instabilities can drive even the most gruesome acts.
“Imagination, of course, can open any door — turn the key and let terror walk right in.” — In Cold Blood
This is my favorite part about long-form journalism: It humanizes evil, and it thrives on sociology. The surface never tells the full story. That’s not to say we should justify criminals or immorality or to even feel sympathy toward these individuals. It does prove that society can affect the brain, and there’s always some condition that partly motivates. Capote’s empathy for one of the murderers even becomes a focal point of the story, making you question certain aspects of our law. It’s powerful and transcends basic crime drama.
“It was Capote’s genius to understand that this midwest killing had a mythic quality, and that the sinister murderers opened up the dark underbelly of postwar America,” wrote The Guardian‘s Robert McCrum in 2014 when the newspaper listed In Cold Blood at 84 on its list of the 100 best novels.
The fact that it can be seen as a “novel” is where it becomes a little problematic though. Capote’s humanization, despite its commonality in long-form journalism, goes a bit too far, especially because this is crime reporting — a genre where humanization is often curtailed to preserve integrity and truth and protect the victims. Because of this swerve from tradition, Capote has been criticized for decades for dramatizing the events, relying on his memory, and even introducing falsehoods into the story.
“It is easy to ignore the rain if you have a raincoat.” — In Cold Blood
Long-form itself draws on human emotion, but it never strays from the truth. Alas, this is my one complaint with In Cold Blood. As a story on its own, this book is near perfect: It captivates me and is the essence of great storytelling, hence my penchant for starting this review with an ode to long-form. However, if If I’m reading nonfiction, I expect nothing but the facts. If the truth behind any of it is called into question, I’m a bit disheartened.
Capote called his work of art “a nonfiction novel,” two words that create an inherent paradox. If I view In Cold Blood simply as a book — neither fiction nor nonfiction (or even both) — and without the journalistic lens that my training and respect usually dictate, it wins me over completely. Yes, I find the various critiques of it problematic. As just a reader, though, I’m intrigued by Capote’s ability to put pen to paper on a gruesome crime and keep me engaged through an onslaught of detail. And even as a former journalist, I have immense respect for this book because it proves long-form has staying power — even 50 years later.