book review

“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote

Introductory Notes

Truman Capote (1924-1984) was born in New Orleans and educated in private schools in Connecticut and New York. As a young man he worked for The New Yorker. He received early acclaim as a writer, but he continued in the public eye mainly for his flamboyant life in New York City, where his substance abuse, mental illness, flamboyant lifestyle, and failed personal relationships remained the stuff of high gossip.

Capote was a childhood friend of Harper Lee, author of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The young Dill in that novel was based on Capote. Some critics have argued that Capote actually wrote the novel, but there is no concrete evidence to support that claim.

Capote is hard to categorize as a writer because he wrote so many different kinds of works: fiction, nonfiction, drama, and essays. But by far his most significant work, and the one he is principally known for, is In Cold Blood.

Review: In Cold Blood

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood 
New York: Modern Library, 1965, rpt. 1992 
Hardcover, 410 pages
ISBN 0-679-60023-X 
Random House Audio, narrated by Scott Brick

Highly Recommended

On November 16, 1959, Truman Capote saw in The New York Times a short news item about the murder of four people in Holcomb, Kansas.* Two weeks later, wearing a Dior suit he had bought for the trip, Capote was on his way to Kansas. Within a month he had won over the residents of Finney County, Kansas, who told him all about the lives of the murder victims, Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their two teenaged children. He also won over the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who poured out their life stories to Capote over the years as they were convicted, sentenced to death, then granted five stays of execution before being hanged in April 1965.

The result of Capote’s research was In Cold Blood, which appeared serially in The New Yorker in 1965 and was published in book form by Random House in 1966. The work received immediate acclaim.

The book opens with a description of Holcomb, located in western Kansas, and an introduction to the Clutter family, who would be murdered in their home. The book then turns to a meeting between ex-convicts Perry and Dick in Olathe in eastern Kansas. The text then cuts back and forth between the Clutters, and Dick and Perry. In each section describing them Dick and Perry have traveled a bit further west in their inexorable trip across Kansas, setting the reader up for the inevitable meeting between the Clutters and the killers. In this way Capote uses narrative structure to build novelistic suspense. 

Capote uses other novelistic techniques such as dialogue and atmospheric descriptions to develop the characters and flesh out the story. In fact, Capote called this book a nonfiction novel. It is one of the first works written in the style that would soon become known as New Journalism.

Colacello* says that In Cold Blood made evident that journalism was Capote’s true calling. Colacello continues that Capote

was among the first writers . . . to realize that as our culture rushed headlong into the Age of Information, it was no longer as interesting or as vital to imagine reality as to report, shape, and define it. In Cold Blood, it is now apparent, was the compass pointing the way to much of the most exciting writing that has since followed, on both sides of the border between fiction and nonfiction, from the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese to the Literary Journalism of Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski, from James Ellroy’s American Tabloid to John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

(p. xii)

Capote produced many different kinds of writing, but In Cold Blood is his masterpiece.

*Colacello, Bob. “Introduction.” In Cold Blood. By Truman Capote. New York: Modern Library, 1992. ix-xii.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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