Grand daddy of true crime

Grand daddy of true crime

Reading In Cold Blood now, more than half a century after its publication, is to realise that time hasn’t dimmed its narrative power and the force of Capote’s writing.

In Cold Blood

True crime documentaries seem to be built into the DNA of almost every streaming service on the planet. They sit in your watchlists and queues, addictive as anything, ready to be binged during lockdowns and staycations — but they are not an invention of the internet era.

It was in 1966 that Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood, the work that is considered the grand-daddy of the true crime genre, was published to widespread acclaim. It had appeared, in serialised form, in the New Yorker the previous year. As a book it gained a bigger audience and controversy followed — as is usual with any creative work that examines vicious acts of violence.

The crime that fascinated Capote seems, on the surface, to be of a kind that littered the post-war landscape in the US. The unequal distribution of wealth, guns and loneliness came together to culminate in a horrific act of violence perpetrated by two drifters in 1959. After reading about the murders of the Herbert Clutter family in the New York Times, Capote headed to Holcomb in Kansas with his childhood friend Harper Lee (yes, that Harper Lee) who would help him win the confidence of the locals.

Capote was able to gain the confidence of the locals (you know a work of literature is truly unique when two movies are made about the writing of it — 2005’s Capote and 2006’s Infamous) and write a work that dove in-depth into the backgrounds of the murderers, the victims, the community itself and the investigators.

When In Cold Blood came out, the chorus of praise was tempered by dissenting voices — among them the writer Tom Wolfe — who accused Capote of sensationalising the crime and its gory details and fictionalising events and quotes.

Capote dismissed the allegations of the most vehement critics by simply saying they were jealous. But his friendship with Harper Lee cooled after the publication of the book and the heightened celebritydom that followed and a jet-set lifestyle with boldface names got in the way of any future writing accomplishments. In Cold Blood proved to be the final, fully realised work from an American literary icon.

A true outsider

Reading In Cold Blood now, more than half a century after its publication, is to realise that time hasn’t dimmed its narrative power and the force of Capote’s writing. It is also clear that the only person who could have written a book that examined the impact of a crime on a close-knit community had to be someone far removed from it. Capote — an out gay man in an era when few were — was a true outsider when he went to Kansas and started talking to the people whose lives were turned upside down by the deaths of their neighbours. Even though his imagination takes flight when he tells the story of an actual crime, he does it with true human understanding of what drives people to violence and how society splinters in the aftermath. In Cold Blood also reveals a more unwelcome truth: the demands for justice and its deliverance may not always bring necessary healing to the wounded.

The author is a Bangalore-based writer and communications professional with many published short stories and essays to her credit.

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