Our book club book this month was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Have you read it? It’s a really amazing, in-depth account of a horrible murder of a family in Western Kansas in 1959.
I’m an editor, and I actually interned at the Kansas City Star, which comes up often in this book. I can’t seem to ever turn off my editor brain, especially when I’m reading nonfiction. And after some recent controversy came up doubting some of Capote’s claims, my editor brain was all over this novel.
Please don’t misunderstand me. The amount of research that went into this book is astounding. I am confident 95% of it is right on the money and expertly and beautifully presented. It’s the other 5%–the nonexistent attribution for conversations Capote couldn’t have been present for, or describing expressions when he wasn’t in the room–that sparks a teeny tiny bit of skepticism from me. These details probably won’t matter to most people. He makes his claims based on days–months probably–of interviews and years of research. So even if he was assuming how someone’s face looked when they got bad news, he likely assumed correctly. But if you’re claiming your novel is 100% accurate, then I think you should be able to clearly say how you know these things are true, even the little moments and expressions that don’t matter much to the whole tale.
We talked about this in book club, and most of the people who weren’t journalists didn’t sweat this small stuff. But we did talk about how he got his information, and journalistic standards and ethics. My book cub notes are here:
Like how close is too close? Did his relationships with his subjects color his account? My issue isn’t with the writing (how could it be, it’s incredible), it’s with transparency. Having more transparency may not have made this book a better story. But I do think it would have made it a stronger journalistic piece. And if you don’t want that–if you’d rather it be a gorgeous piece of writing that’s 95% accurate and blurs the lines of truth here and there–then I’m totally cool with that. Really. As long as you tell me that’s what’s happening so I can read it with that in mind.
The structure of this novel is brilliant. He twists the victims’ and the killers’ stories so that they really only meet toward the end–once Dick and Perry are caught and are telling their tale. I read that Capote was one of the first to do this kind of nonfiction novel. He made it popular, and, when he was writing, footnotes and strict record-keeping weren’t really a thing yet. I understand, but I do wish they were there. Because I’m a big nerd, and I like to read them. And also because if they were there, it would be easier to dispute/support others’ claims of inaccuracy.
One of my favorite themes in the book is perceptions versus reality. The killers eventually confess, but do you believe every word in their confessions? Their personalities can seem sweet or callous, depending on circumstances, so who are they really? Sensitive and charming? Or manipulative, cold-blooded killers? The Clutter family was well-off and lived in a big house and took care of big business. The killers believed they were rich, but found next to no cash in their house. What’s real? Does reality or perception even matter when the end result is a dead family?
What do you guys think?
(I bought this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. I am not affiliated with Word; I’m just a fan.)