In Cold Blood (Capote)

In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences
Truman Capote, 1965
Knopf Doubleday
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780679745587

On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues.

As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood is a work that transcends its moment, yielding poignant insights into the nature of American violence.

With the publication of this book, Capote permanently ripped through the barrier separating crime reportage from serious literature. As he reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, Capote generates suspense and empathy. (From the publisher.)

The novel was the basis for Capote, a 2005 movied starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won both an Oscar and the Golden Globe Award for his performance as Truman Capote.

Author Bio 
Aka—Truman Streckfus Persons
Birth—September 30, 1924
Where—New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Death—August 25, 1984
Where—Los Angeles, California
Education—Trinity School and St. John's Academy in New
  York City and Greenwich High School in Connecticut
Awards—O.Henry Memorial Short Story Prize, twice;
  member, National Institute of Arts and Letters.

When Truman Capote debuted on the New York literary scene in 1948, no one had seen anything quite like him. Capote soon became famous for his intensely readable and nuanced short stories, novels, and novellas, but he was equally famous as a personality, gadfly, and bon vivant — not to mention as a crime writer. Capote’s much-imitated 1965 book, In Cold Blood, all but invented the narrative true-crime genre. (From Barnes and Noble.)

Capote is also credited with the development of what is now referred to as "literary non-fiction."

More  (than you need to know)
Truman Capote was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, the son of 17-year-old Lillie Mae (nee Faulk) and Archelaus Persons, who was a salesman.When he was four, his parents divorced, and he was sent to Monroeville, Alabama, where he was raised by his mother's relatives. He formed a fast bond with his mother's distant relative, Nanny Rumbley Faulk, whom Truman called 'Sook'. "Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind," is how Capote described Sook in "A Christmas Memory." In Monroeville, he was a neighbor and friend of Harper Lee, who grew up to write To Kill a Mockingbird.

As a lonely child, Capote taught himself to read and write before he entered the first grade in school. Capote was often seen at age five carrying his dictionary and notepad, and he began writing when he was ten. At this time, he was given the nickname Bulldog, possibly a pun reference of "Bulldog Truman" to the fictional detective Bulldog Drummond popular in films of the mid-1930s.

On Saturdays, he made trips from Monroeville to Mobile, and when he was ten, he submitted his short story, "Old Mr. Busybody," to a children's writing contest sponsored by the Mobile Press Register.

In 1933, he moved to New York City to live with his mother and her second husband, Joseph Capote, a Cuban-born textile broker, who adopted his stepson and renamed him Truman García Capote. When he was 11, he began writing seriously in daily three-hour sessions. Of his early days Capote related, "I began writing really sort of seriously when I was about eleven. I say seriously in the sense that like other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano or whatever, I used to go home from school every day and I would write for about three hours. I was obsessed by it."

When he was 17, Capote ended his formal education and began a two-year job at The New Yorker. Years later, he wrote...

Not a very grand job, for all it really involved was sorting cartoons and clipping newspapers. Still, I was fortunate to have it, especially since I was determined never to set a studious foot inside a college classroom. I felt that either one was or wasn't a writer, and no combination of professors could influence the outcome. I still think I was correct, at least in my own case.

Between 1943 and 1946, Capote wrote a continual flow of short fiction, for which he won the O. Henry Award. His stories were published in both literary quarterlies and well-known magazines, including Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Bazaar, Harper's Magazine, Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner and Story. Interviewed in 1957 for the the Paris Review, Capote was asked about his short story technique, answering:

Since each story presents its own technical problems, obviously one can't generalize about them on a two-times-two-equals-four basis. Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right.

In 1943 Capote wrote his first novel, Summer Crossing about the summer romance of Fifth Avenue socialite Grady O'Neil with a parking lot attendant. Capote later claimed to have destroyed it, and it was regarded as a lost work. However, it was stolen in 1966 by a housesitter Capote hired to watch his Brooklyn apartment, resurfaced in 2004 and was published by Random House in 2005.

In June 1946, one of his short stories, "Miriam" (which won an O. Henry Award) attracted the attention of publisher Bennett Cerf, resulting in a contract with Random House to write a novel. With an advance of $1,500, Capote described the symbolic tale as "a poetic explosion in highly suppressed emotion." The novel is a semi-autobiographical refraction of Capote's Alabama childhood.

When Other Voices, Other Rooms was published in 1948, it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks, selling more than 26,000 copies, catapulting Capote to fame.

Random House followed the success of Other Voices, Other Rooms with A Tree of Night and Other Stories in 1949. In addition to "Miriam," this collection also includes "Shut a Final Door." First published in Atlantic Monthly (August, 1947), "Shut a Final Door" won a second O. Henry Award in 1948.

Capote remained a lifelong friend of his Monroeville neighbor Harper Lee, and he based the character of Idabel in Other Voices, Other Rooms on her. He in turn was the inspiration for the character Dill, in Lee's 1960 bestselling, Pulitzer prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Capote, Dill is creative, bold and had an unsatisfactory family history. In an interview with Lawrence Grobel, Capote recalled his childhood, "Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Harper Lee's mother and father, lived very near. Harper Lee was my best friend. Did you ever read her book, To Kill a Mockingbird? I'm a character in that book, which takes place in the same small town in Alabama where we both lived."

Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories brought together the title novella and three shorter tales: "House of Flowers," "A Diamond Guitar" and "A Christmas Memory." The heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany's, Holly Golightly, became one of Capote's best-known creations, and the book's prose style prompted Norman Mailer to call Capote "the most perfect writer of my generation." A first edition of this book might sell for from $500 to more than $3000, depending upon condition.

In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, was inspired by a 300-word article that ran on page 39 of New York Times on Monday, November 16, 1959. The story described the unexplained murder of the Clutter family in rural Holcomb, Kansas. In Cold Blood was serialized in The New Yorker in 1965 and published in hardcover by Random House in 1966. The "non-fiction novel," as Capote labeled it, brought him literary acclaim and became an international bestseller.

A feud between Capote and British arts critic Kenneth Tynan erupted in the pages of The Observer after Tynan's review of In Cold Blood implied that Capote wanted an execution so the book would have an effective ending. (An issue suggested by the 2005 movie, Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.)

In Cold Blood brought Capote much praise from the literary community, but there were some who questioned certain events as reported in the book. Writing in Esquire in 1966, Phillip K. Tompkins noted factual discrepancies after he traveled to Kansas and talked to some of the same people interviewed by Capote. In his article, Tompkins concluded:

Capote has, in short, achieved a work of art. He has told exceedingly well a tale of high terror in his own way. But, despite the brilliance of his self-publicizing efforts, he has made both a tactical and a moral error that will hurt him in the short run. 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.

True Crime writer Jack Olsen also commented on the fabrications: "I recognized it as a work of art, but I know fakery when I see it," Olsen says. "Capote completely fabricated quotes and whole scenes."

The book made something like $6 million in 1960s money, and nobody wanted to discuss anything wrong with a money-maker like that in the publishing business."

Later Years
After the success of In Cold Blood, Capote's publisher re-released his earlier works. Now more sought-after than ever, Capote wrote occasional brief articles for magazines, and also entrenched himself more deeply in the world of the jet set.

By the late 1970s, Capote was in and out of rehab clinics, and news of his various breakdowns frequently reached the public. In 1978, talk show host Stanley Siegal did a live on-air interview with Capote, who, in an extraordinarily intoxicated state, confessed that he might kill himself.

Capote died in Los Angeles, California, on August 25, 1984, aged 59. According to the coroner's report the cause of death was "liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication." He died at the home of his old friend Joanne Carson, ex-wife of late-night TV host Johnny Carson, on whose program Capote had been a frequent guest. He was interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, leaving behind his longtime companion, author Jack Dunphy. Dunphy died in 1992, and in 1994 both his and Capote's ashes were scattered at Crooked Pond, between Bridgehampton, New York and Sag Harbor, New York on Long Island, close to where the two had maintained a property with individual houses for many years. (Bio excerpted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
There are two Truman Capotes. One is the artful charmer, prone to the gossamer and the exquisite, of the The Grass Harp and Holly Golightly. The other, darker and stronger, is the discoverer of death. He has traveled far from the misty, moss-hung, Southern-Gothic landscapes of youth. He now broods with the austerity of a Greek or an Elizabethan.
Conrad Knickerbocker - New York Times (1/1966)

The best documentary account of an American crime ever written.... The book chills the blood and exercises the intelligence...harrowing.
New York Review of Books

Capote has, in short, achieved a work of art. He has told exceedingly well a tale of high terror in his own way. But, despite the brilliance of his self-publicizing efforts, he has made both a tactical and a moral error that will hurt him in the short run. 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.
Philip K. Thompkins - Esquire (1966)

(Audio version.) In the wake of the award-winning film Capote, interest in the author's 1965 true crime masterpiece has spiked. Capote's spellbinding narrative plumbs the psychological and emotional depths of a senseless quadruple murder in America's heartland. In the audio version, narrator Brick keeps up with the master storyteller every step of the way. In fact, Brick's surefooted performance is nothing short of stunning. He settles comfortably into every character on this huge stage-male and female, lawman and murderer, teen and spinster-and moves fluidly between them, generating the feel of a full-cast production. He assigns varying degrees of drawl to the citizens of Finney County, Kans., where the crimes take place, and supplements with an arsenal of tension-building cadences, hard and soft tones, regional and foreign accents, and subtle inflections, even embedding a quiver of grief in the voice of one character. This facile audio actor delivers an award-worthy performance, well-suited for a tale of such power that moves not only around the country but around the territory of the human psyche and heart.
Publishers Weekly

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for In Cold Blood

1. Start with the victims. What kind of family is the Clutter household? In what way does Capote create sympathy for them? Do you feel they represented the American Dream?

2. How does Capote, as a writer, handle the actual murder of the Clutter family. Or is it too gruesome, too heartbreaking to discuss?

3. Discuss the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. What kind of men were they? What were their motives in committing murder? Talk about their backgrounds and psychological make-ups? Think, for instance, about Perry Smith's chilling comment: "I thought he was a very nice gentleman.... I thought so right up to the moment I cut this throat."

4. In many ways, In Cold Blood is about the murderers. Do you feel they deserve such attention? Do you think that Capote pulls off the near impossible—does he build sympathy, in your mind, for the killers? Does he endow them—Perry Smith, in particular—with any kind of humanity? Or does he depict them as savage animals, devoid of human redemption?

5. What was the impact of the murders on the Holcomb community? How did it alter the residents' perceptions of the natural order of things, of life?

6. With this book, Truman has been credited with developing a new genre of writing: "literary non-fiction." What might that term mean, and how does In Cold Blood differ from straight crime reporting? Why did Capote create the kind of story he did, and what is its impact on the reader of this new approach?

7. Suggestion: Watch the 2005 film, Capote, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Truman Capote. Does the film affect your view of Capote and his motives in writing his book?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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