I picked up Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood this summer and slowly worked my way through most of it, only to leave it lying unattended by my bedside for months.
Not that it isn’t a gripping tale. The non-fiction, which details the murder of a family of four in rural Kansas, often has the same appeal as a good horror flick. Before the bloody deed is done, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the suspense: the only question is how the victims, Mr. Clutter and his family, will be snuffed out.
My problem came after Kansas detectives bag Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, Mr. Clutter’s twisted assailants. Perhaps my disinterest can be blamed on having seen Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliant turn as the author in the 2005 film Capote. Unfortunately, I know how this story is going to end.
That aside, I’ve got a bigger bone to pick with Capote, and it has to do with good old-fashioned journalism. Capote’s claim to fame was his ability to conjure vivid, true-to-life scenes from actual events. The author himself called In Cold Blood a “nonfiction novel,” and laid claim to its total veracity.
Yet, as a journalist, some scenes from this true crime magnum opus jumped out at me as impossibly detailed. Take, for instance, the moment when Mr. Clutter’s son, Kenyon, and a family farmhand spend a quiet moment in the garden just hours before the murder.
The chill of oncoming dusk shivered through the air, and though the sky was still deep blue, lengthening shadows emanated from the garden’s tall chrysanthemum stalks; Nancy’s cat frolicked among them, catching its paws in the twine with which Kenyon and the old man were tying plants.
You know what got me? That darn cat. I’m no crime reporter, but I’ve interviewed people after tragic events. And believe me, they are not going to tell you about the frolicking cat or the lengthening shadows emanating from the chrysanthemum stalks. At best, Capote had to be filling in a few blanks. It’s called imagination.
I’m not the first to have lodged such a charge. Shortly after Capote published his book, in 1965, Phillip K. Tompkins, noted that parts of Capote’s account conflicted with his own interviews with key sources chronicled in the book. Tompkins made the point clear in a 1966 article in Esquire.
“By insisting that “every word” of his book is true he has made himself vulnerable to those readers who are prepared to examine seriously such a sweeping claim,” Tompkins wrote.
The whole thing makes me wonder if Capote would have gotten away with taking such liberties today. In our post- Million Little Pieces world, readers are more willing to second guess the absolute truth of a work of non-fiction, and publishers are wary of putting their names behind a text that may not withstand the public scrutiny.
But before writing off Capote — and memoir writers for that matter — I’m inclined to keep in mind another important fact. In Cold Blood just wouldn’t be such a good read if Capote hadn’t filled in the blanks.