Sunday, December 05, 2010

In Cold Blood Revisited

Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans--in fact, few Kansans--had ever heard of Holcomb ... But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises--on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them--four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.
Those words are found in the early pages of a twentieth-century classic: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Capote described the book as an "unexplored literary medium" which he called the "non-fiction novel." In Cold Blood tells the story of the real-life murder of a wealthy rancher named Herbert Clutter, his wife and two teenaged children on November 14, 1959 by two killers who entered the house in the tiny town of Holcomb, Kansas while the family slept. The book spawned entire generations of true crime books.

When I was my mid-twenties, I encountered a man who scared me. One of my best friends met and married him in less than a week. All she could see was his remarkable good looks and his expensive car; all she could hear was his smooth patter.

I had never met anyone like him before. He lied even about details that didn't matter, he believed he was entitled to anything he could take or swindle, and his casual brutality startled even me--who had grown up around alcohol-fueled violence. Part of the reason he scared me was because he was cruel without cause or reason.

I began reading true crime books to try to understand where people like this came from. Eventually my burgeoning interest in psychopathy catapulted me into graduate school. But, before then, I amassed a library of over two hundred true crime books.

Of course, I purchased In Cold Blood, which had been released many years earlier and was regarded as the gold standard in the "true crime" genre. Of all the true crime I read, that book stands out because it was one of a half dozen I could not finish. There were a couple of books I didn't finish because the gory details were so disgusting that I had to put them down. There were another couple so badly written that I put them down in frustration. In Cold Blood did not fit into either of those categories. Masterfully written and not gratuitously violent, the book was in a class of its own.

I didn't have the writing experience back then to recognize why the book bothered me so much. I just knew I couldn't finish it. And I've never gone back to pick it up again, not even when the film Capote came out in 2005. In Cold Blood sits on my shelf, untouched and unloved.

Recently a website I visited directed me to a 1966 interview the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did with Truman Capote. I found the interview fascinating.

When the film Capote came out, there were lots of old TV inter-
views with Truman Capote replayed in order to compare Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal to the real man. I was not terribly impressed by those old interviews. To me, Capote seemed superficial, self-aggrandizing, and frequently a bit malicious.

However, in the CBC interview, you get to see Capote, the writer. The contrast is startling.

Capote is initially very defensive of his "non-fiction novel":
People keep confusing my book with the subject matter … they keep talking about ... crime books ... Well, the subject matter of my book was purely incidental. I mean, it’s the least interesting or important thing about the book. The interest of the book is in how it sets out to explore what I consider an unexplored literary medium and what one does with it ...
Although Capote never went to college, he clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about his craft. At first, when he begins talking about "reportage," as he calls "journalism," I thought, "What a pompous little man." But then he said this:
... there is a great difference between fiction and journalism that is almost irreconcilable ...

In journalism … one is moving horizontally. One never moves vertically. You almost never go down inside. You are moving horizontally on a … superficial surface, [in a] horizontal narrative.

The whole point about fiction is … that you start out horizontally and, at the first opportunity, you go vertical. You’re inside of the characters, deep inside the situation… You’re [like] God moving … vertically and horizontally at the same time, simultaneously … All reportage that I can think of moves horizontally. One is always on the surface.
Perhaps because I had been so dismissive of the man, I was profoundly struck by Capote's analysis of the two mediums.

His next words suggested to me why I had instinctively recoiled from In Cold Blood:
The other thing is that the technical innovation in that book … is that I, the reporter, never appear... This is the most single most difficult thing of the whole thing and the reason I did it. It was almost a technical impossibility ... I wanted to prove that the reporter could be completely absented from the thing as a person.
I spent a good part of this weekend reading In Cold Blood. I found myself admiring Capote's skill as a writer and as an artist. How- ever, this time around, I could clearly identify the two issues that probably prevented me from finishing the book years ago.

First, I still find it creepy to have the last day of the Clutter family's life recreated in novel style so that whole conversations and feelings are included as fact. As an example, here's an excerpt from a phone conversation between the teenage Clutter daughter Nancy and her best friend Susan:
“What are you eating?”


“I know-—your fingernails,” said Susan, guessing correctly. Much as Nancy tried, she could not break the habit of nibbling her nails, and, whenever she was troubled, chewing them right to the quick. “Tell. Something wrong?”


“Nancy. C’est moi. . . . ” Susan was studying French.
Capote said every conversation in the book has its basis in an interview with one of the involved individuals. However, he also claimed to have recreated from memory all the interviews he did with the people of Holcomb. He said he did not use a tape recorder and found that note-taking during an interview inhibited his subjects. He would do the interview and then sit down to write his notes. So we have his recollection of what his subjects told him, not a word-for-word account.

And Capote selected which interviews and which comments to include and which to exclude from the book. Over the years he was in Holcomb, he amassed a huge amount of material. I found an interview he did with George Plimpton here for the New York Times in 1966. In that interview, Capote says, "My files would almost fill a whole small room, right up to the ceiling."

I think Capote was either being disingenuous or kidding himself when he claimed that he was completely absent from the book. He said it himself: "You're God" when writing a non-fiction novel. The underlying dishonesty of his approach bothered me as much today as it did when I first read the book. I'd far rather read a book by Jack Olsen or Ann Rule where the writer openly acknowledges his thoughts on the crime being recounted.

Neither of my complaints diminishes Capote's accomplishment in producing a remarkable narrative, although I would call it a fact-based novel. I will always wonder whether the confessed killers Smith and Hickock had a homosexual relationship as writer J.J. Maloney claimed, and whether Capote's own homosexuality led to his burying that fact. Maloney believed that it was Smith's jealousy over Hickock's interest in the sixteen-year-old Nancy Clutter that acted as the catalyst for the needless murders.

The CBC's rules won't let me embed the interview on my blog, but you can listen to it if you go here.

You can also read In Cold Blood online. It was first released as a four-part series in The New Yorker in September, 1965. Part I is here.


Mike Keyton said...

Excellent post, Maya. You've prompted me to read the book

Maya Reynolds said...

Thanks, Mike.

I will remember Capote's comment about going forward and then deeper into characters as I write fiction.