Book Report: In Cold Blood

After we went to see Capote a couple of months ago, I was curious to pick up In Cold Blood. Up until then, I had little inclination to read it. The film focused on Truman Capote’s process in writing it, and his actual involvement in the outcome of the events he was writing about (e.g. going so far as to get the killers legal help). So I expected at least a little mention of himself in the book. Not so. There is one mention of “a journalist” who I suspect was actually Capote, and one other mention of “a woman journalist” who I suspect was Harper Lee. And that was it.

So I think the film did do some service in bringing his actual implication to light. But by the same token, I think the film also falls into much the same trap. It portrays everything in it as a simple fact. Not only does it provide no insight into the research it took to make it, it simply treats its own varnished surface as if it was reality, not a reenactment at all. (Because of this, I now sort of want to read Capote, the book upon which the film was based, though I think I may be all caput on Capote for the moment.)

Anyway, such varnish is the substance of In Cold Blood. True, it is clearly the product of painstaking research, done with a great deal of sympathy. In my favorite moments, Capote completely throws himself into minor or passing characters. They’re ordinary people who don’t usually get interviewed or researched, and turn out to be fascinating on examination. But, you never get that they were interviewed or researched. You just get the finished product, perfectly staged so that you never see back into the wings.

I know that’s part of the point; he did call it a non-fiction novel. But it  somehow doesn’t sit quite so well with me. I’ve thought about it since, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint why. On one hand, I have to admit that I can’t imagine it being so compelling if it was straight non-fiction. I’ve tried to read Studs Terkel before, because I was intrigued with the idea of someone just interviewing everyday people and getting their stories down in what feels like their own language. But somehow I never manage to get very far; part of me finds the concept interesting and the execution pretty faultless, yet the finished product fails to hold my interest. On the other hand, I’ve long thought that simple fabrication doesn’t make for compelling fiction. So I’m on board with the idea of making a novel out of real people and real events. But somehow it feels wrong that there is no warning label with that omniscient voice.

Nonetheless, it was a terrific and horrible story, and it’s definitely worth the read. And it’s another case of Truman Capote spurring me on to think heavily about the mystery of the real and the fake.

3 thoughts on “Book Report: In Cold Blood”

  1. I LOVED this book, as I think that you know. We just had our book club discussion about it yesterday & it was pointed out that this was the first book of its kind—a “true crime” non-fiction novel…very experimental at the time. Its true that there are definitely biases & such, but he was able to describe everything so well & everyone so well that it felt like you were there.

  2. As you say, In Cold Blood was supposed to be a novelization of what happened. Capote stated that from the get-go and never implied otherwise. In fact, that was the point. Now, I haven’t read the book–but if it elevates these people and this situation to having some mass dramatic value, does it disrespect them or what really happened? Or does it put them on par with all the other people and things that the general public gobbles up? Some of Warhol’s ideas are in there somewhere. (Warhol started producing disaster paintings in 1962. In Cold Blood is copyright 1965, but the murders happened in 1959, and Capote’s research must have started in ’59 or ’60.)

    The film, like the book, was never supposed to be a documentary, either. Like you, I do wonder about the book Capote.

  3. I actually was thinking a lot about Warhol’s disaster paintings, as well as his diet of tabloids, when I was writing this.

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