Capote's In Cold Blood: new evidence
February 9, 2013 6:05 AM   Subscribe

New documents shed critical light on the treatment of the 1959 Clutter murder case, both by Kansas investigators and by Truman Capote in his classic book. Perhaps most strikingly, it turns out that Capote changed the sequence of events whereby investigators learned of the possible involvement of Richard Hickock and dealt with that information. As Capote describes it, Alvin Dewey heard of Hickock and went to visit his parents that same night, artfully extracting crucial information. KBI documents show that instead, a group of agents went to the house five days later and recovered the murder weapon.
posted by BibiRose (15 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Did Capote ever actually call In Cold Blood a "non-fiction novel" or was that tag hung on it later by others?
posted by jfuller at 6:25 AM on February 9, 2013

That's a good question. It never occurred to me to take In Cold Blood as factual to the extent that I would find "revelations" of this level to be shocking.
posted by Bookhouse at 6:28 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

From an essay Capote wrote about his work: 'This book was an important event for me. While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.'

I am surprised that this is supposed to be shocking- I had thought everyone understood that it was a novel, however based on fact and endless interviews with the people involved it was.
posted by winna at 7:04 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmm, but in continuing to look, I found this interview he did with George Plimpton in 1966.

With the nonfiction novel I suppose the temptation to fictionalize events, or a line of dialogue, for example, must at times be overwhelming. With "In Cold Blood" was there any invention of this sort to speak of--I was thinking specifically of the dog you described trotting along the road at the end of the section on Perry and Dick, and then later you introduce the next section on the two with Dick swerving to hit the dog. Was there actually a dog at that exact point in the narrative, or were you using this habit of Dick's as a fiction device to bridge the two sections?

No. There was a dog, and it was precisely as described. One doesn't spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions. People are so suspicious. They ask, "How can you reconstruct the conversation of a dead girl, Nancy Clutter, without fictionalizing?" If they read the book carefully, they can see readily enough how it's done. It's a silly question. Each time Nancy appears in the narrative, there are witnesses to what she is saying and doing--phone calls, conversations, being overheard. When she walks the horse up from the river in the twilight, the hired man is a witness and talked to her then. The last time we see her, in her bedroom, Perry and Dick themselves were the witnesses, and told me what she had said. What is reported of her, even in the narrative form, is as accurate as many hours of questioning, over and over again, can make it. All of it is reconstructed from the evidence of witnesses which is implicit in the title of the first section of the book "The Last to See Them Alive."

posted by winna at 7:18 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is funny how standards have changed such that writing a book like In Cold Blood, to the extent that it is based at all on factual information, would be virtually impossible now. For prosecutors to grant the media that kind of access flies in the face of most ethical rules, as far as I can tell. In some ways, that only cements the book's place as something special, even if Capote's and/or Dewey's behavior in producing it was sneaky or manipulative.
posted by likeatoaster at 7:36 AM on February 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also found that they exhumed the killers from this case to test their DNA against a cold case from 1959 in Florida.

As far as Capote's claim of dedication to total factual accuracy, here's an overview of some of the five thousand changes made in the serialized version published in The New Yorker versus the version published by Random House. Some are trivial, some are substantial. He may have claimed all sorts of things - he may even have believed them. But his claim to accuracy has never been part of why it's still read. It's a beautifully written book, whether he'd made it all up or not changed the position of a dog on the road as the two killers drove to the farm where the Clutters lived.

I'm posting too much, but memory and the question of what is truth in writing has always interested me. I will stop.
posted by winna at 7:42 AM on February 9, 2013

...writing a book like In Cold Blood, to the extent that it is based at all on factual information, would be virtually impossible now. For prosecutors to grant the media that kind of access flies in the face of most ethical rules, as far as I can tell.

I spoke to someone who witnessed Capote's arrival in Lawrence, Kansas from the point of view of the municipal establishment. They wanted so badly to exclude and dislike him, but they found it to be impossible not to love him. Prosecutors will likely grant that kind of access again, when another Capote comes along, if that ever happens.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:09 AM on February 9, 2013

I've always viewed In Cold Blood as a kind of fictional true crime novel. It sits in an ill-defined and uncomfortable space. But it is not any less pleasurable to read. So the story is that writers stretch the truth and make it more beautiful with their own words. This is NOT news to me.
posted by Fizz at 8:33 AM on February 9, 2013

I remember reading In Cold Blood as a kid. I loved it so much I tried to find other "true crime" books like it and was sorely disappointed. I was too young at the time to realize I'd basically started from the top and it was all downhill from there.

Even at that age though I knew not to trust it as 100% true. I read biographies of Capote after reading it and it was pretty clear he was a bit of a fabulist.
posted by Anonymous at 9:52 AM on February 9, 2013

From the WSJ article: Mr. Capote's defenders note that the rules of non-fiction-book writing, including the footnoting of source material, hardened only after Mr. Capote helped pioneer the genre. This is very valid, to me. There really weren't any rules when Capote wrote the book, so you can't say he broke them.

But I also think this was quite an unusual moment in terms of how the writing interacted with the events as they took place. That seems to be a fairly obvious phenomenon now, but it was only in 1990 that Janet Malcolm came out with The Journalist and the Murderer. Fatal Vision, the book she criticizes, claimed to be completely factual. But its author, Joe McGinniss, inserted himself into the case and thus affected it, and I think you can say the same for Capote. You could even draw parallels between the ways each author befriended a defendant.

I think In Cold Blood is an incredibly powerful book, among other things, in the way it treats the death penalty. It doesn't read as being a tract on that subject, or even really pro or con, but me, it shows how monstrous legal death in the state of Kansas was at that time. Even though the men put to death were, in a way, poster boys for the penalty-- which in a strange way, makes it a stronger statement. I think there are a lot of paradoxes in this book, which is what makes it so endlessly fascinating.
posted by BibiRose at 10:00 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'll just leave this here.
posted by mindwarp at 10:20 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

When I read the book, I could see that Capote clearly liked Smith far more than Hickock, and guessed that the book had to be distorted in other ways. Capote screwed up the pacing of the trial to put Smith in a better light, though mistelling the actual events of the investigation is a bigger thing.
posted by Jehan at 10:40 AM on February 9, 2013

The inaccuracies may be no big surprise to anyone, but the fact that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation is displaying the book in a glass case in the lobby of their headquarters while the Topeka AG sues to suppress decades-old documents that make them look bad ... that seems like a story.
posted by crayz at 10:40 AM on February 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

There really weren't any rules when Capote wrote the book, so you can't say he broke them.

Well, yes and no. Saying "it's all factual" when you know that it isn't was just as much a lie back then as it is now.
posted by yoink at 1:03 PM on February 9, 2013

I was expecting a much larger change than this. Not that making up an entire scene without including even a little bit of the truth is a good thing, but knowing how unreliable Capote was in every other matter of his life makes me feel like any of it could be fake.

But it's still a beautifully-written and fascinating book. I read a lot of true crime before I read In Cold Blood, and it was only afterwards that I could see what they were trying (and usually failing) to achieve. I think Dave Cullen's Columbine comes close. In my opinion, the best true crime writers are long-form journalists, with short-form journalists being the worst (patchy, disjointed and often terrible at indicating the order of events) and everyone else in-between. In Cold Blood is one of those trope-makers that are quite different from the pattern that followed.

mindwarp, I'm not quite sure what WSB is saying about the book in that letter/curse (I blame the justified text, so hard to read! what's wrong with left-aligned text, Letters of Note?). Is it that Capote shouldn't have entered into the debate about the amount of sympathy given to murderers vs victims? Or that he picked the side of the victims? I'm quite curious.
posted by harriet vane at 1:11 AM on February 12, 2013

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