In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is not only considered a classic in the modern true crime genre but is considered by many to be a defining work. Capote takes the horrible quadruple homicide of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas and draws the reader into its grisly events. From the events leading up to the murders until the execution of the two killers, Capote gives the reader a view of the crime they would normally never experience to all that transpired, all the while creating a work that would come to define a genre.
Truman Capote focuses on balancing the viewpoints among the killers, the victims, and then the investigators. This balance helps to see multiple sides of the story. It is easy to imagine the two murders, Dick and Perry, as merely two dimensional individuals who acted out of pure evil if not for the insight into their lives provided by Capote. The reader is slowly exposed to the back stories of these two individuals, including prior criminal acts and their childhoods. It becomes easier to see how and why these two men ultimately decided to attempt to rob the Clutters and where their tendency for violence was potentially born. The technique of showing both sides of a case provides insight as to why the events that took place occurred the way that they did. Many true crime novels and shows have adopted this as a way of telling the story because of its impactful.
While Capote’s work grew to characterize a genre, it was not without criticism. Many individuals in the case claimed that facts were mispresented or that they were mischaracterized. This begs that question as to why? It is possible it occurred as a result of Capote having received incorrect information during his research. On the other hand, it may have been intentional as a way to add flair to the work and make it a more interesting read. However, Capote likely used this inaccurate information to add suspense at the expense of accuracy. For example, the friendliness the killers received in jail was exaggerated but it added a sense of sympathy to the killers which was likely shared by the writer. After all, much of the dialogue, particularly between Perry and Dick, had to have been at least partly fabricated as there is no record of the actual conversations. While many people expect some errors in this type of medium, it does also seem to parallel some of the sensationalism that occurs in the news media as well. Both are formats which are supposedly fact based but often times seems to stretch the truth in the interest of a good story.
Another issue raised by In Cold Blood is the idea of mental health in the criminal justice system. Both of the men convicted and sentenced to die for the murders appeared to have some mental health related issues. This comes to play in a couple of ways. First, during the trial, they are evaluated and the findings presented under the McNaughton Rule, which essentially determined whether or not the defendants understood their action was wrong and the logical consequences of their actions However, the doctor who evaluated them had more to say but was not allowed to in court. While they were fit to stand trial, the mental health concerns raises questions as to whether death was an appropriate sentence. While this is not a large issue in the book, it does leave the reader, who has the benefit of knowing the full evaluation by the doctor, to wonder if the punishment fit the crime and if their mental health was correctly considered in the context of the case.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a classic within the genre of true crime. It includes some important stylistic points such as the dual prospective used in the novel as well as raised questions on important issues such as the honesty of journalism and the role of mental health in criminal proceedings. The result is a work that is both interesting and thought provoking and has more than earned its place as a classic in American nonfiction literature, particularly in the true crime genre. Individuals who are seeking a greater understanding of how an investigation and prosecution occurs as well as why individuals commit heinous acts would enjoy this book. It provides rare insight and while disturbing at times, is an enthralling read.
Zach Thomas is an Honors Student and Criminology major.