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Truman Capote

In Cold Blood

Capote had been researching the topic of his next book when he came across a headline in the New York Times in 1959. A wealthy and prominent rancher, his wife, and teenage son and daughter had been brutally murdered in Holcomb, a suburb of Garden City, Kansas. Capote made arrangements to do a series on the murders for the New Yorker and within days had moved to Kansas to write his book.

The result of Capote's investigation was In Cold Blood, a new type of novel involving true crime (see sidebar). Capote divided the book into four sections, moving the narrative back and forth between the criminals and their victims, and then between the detectives and the criminals. Capote used film techniques of flashbacks and close-ups to create maximum tension in the novel.

In Cold Blood was first serialized in the New Yorker and then released in book form by Random House in 1965. It sold out and created quite a sensation before being produced as a Hollywood movie in 1967. Capote celebrated his success by throwing a party at New York's Plaza Hotel in 1966, inviting five hundred friends to attend.

True Crime

Ever since there have been criminals, there has been public interest in their crimes. People want to know why other people behave as they do, especially when it involves murder. There is widespread interest in what motivates killers to act, as well as curiosity about the details of what happens to the victims. The public will follow a case from the initial investigation by law enforcement officials, to the resulting trial and ultimate sentencing of the accused.

In the early twenty-first century, several television programs feature reenactments of actual criminal cases that have been solved. On these shows participating law enforcement officials and survivors are interviewed to show how criminals are brought to justice. Some programs give details of unsolved cases, asking viewers for help in apprehending offenders, while other television programs present fictionalized accounts of how modern technology is used in real crime scene investigations, especially for homicides.

Internet web sites and daily newspaper accounts follow current cases of true crime that capture the public's attention because they are either close to home or sensational in nature. During the 1990s, media coverage of the latest killing by a celebrity,or one that was especially gruesome, created such public interest that a new type of book emerged. These written accounts give instant gratification to people who want to read about existing true crimes, but are often published before trial results are even in.

In 1965 Truman Capote helped introduce a new style of writing, which is now called "literary nonfiction." His novel, In Cold Blood, was based on facts, but he did not deliver them in a journalistic fashion. Instead he used a storytelling technique that made the book read like suspense fiction. Capote spent six years studying the 1959 murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas. He lived with the townspeople, interviewing them over the years, while he recorded how they coped with the loss of four members of their community.

Capote maintained the suspense of his story by first talking about the community's response to the murders. He kept the details about how the Clutters died until after the killers were captured. Capote interviewed the two young drifters who confessed and were tried for the murders. He devoted the final chapter of his book to giving extensive details about their trial and prison life. Capote developed an emotional attachment to the criminals during his time interviewing them, and he witnessed their hanging at the Kansas state penitentiary in April 1965. Capote's in-depth novel was a great success and the popularity of true crime stories increased as a result.

For several years after In Cold Blood was released, Truman was seen as an authority on the criminal justice system. Journalists sought his opinion on prisons and capital punishment. In 1976 he wrote Then It All Came Down, which also dealt with crime and criminal justice.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawTruman Capote - Persons To Capote, Breakfast At Tiffany's, In Cold Blood, True Crime, Fall From Grace