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In Cold Blood | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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In Cold Blood | 10 Things You Didn't Know


On November 15, 1959, four members of a family in a small Kansas town were murdered in their home by intruders. Normally, a story like this would fade from the public's memory after a few months—but not when Truman Capote is on the case.

After reading about the murders in the paper, Capote decided to travel to Holcomb, Kansas, to investigate and write about the crime. With his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee (famous later for To Kill a Mockingbird) by his side, Capote spent months interviewing the town's residents and even the murderers themselves. Six years and thousands of pages of notes later, Capote's In Cold Blood was published in January 1966 to great acclaim. It sold out almost instantly, eventually becoming the second-biggest-selling true crime book ever written.

Some consider In Cold Blood to be the first "nonfiction novel," though others argue that the genre was born long before Capote. In any case, his masterpiece is widely regarded as a pioneering work in the true crime genre, and it has inspired a number of adaptations.

1. Capote randomly chose to write about the Clutter murder case.

Capote's interest in the case was sparked by a 300-word article about the murders in the New York Times. He didn't have any particular interest in crime as a subject, calling his choice of topic "altogether literary." For years he wanted to explore how combining journalism with creative writing techniques could "yield a serious new art form" and felt as a theme murder would not "darken and yellow with time."

2. Capote investigated the murders with help from author Harper Lee.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, met Capote when they were five years old—they were next-door neighbors. Capote called Lee gifted and courageous and knew she had "a warmth that instantly kindles most people." She stayed in Kansas for two months with Capote, conducting interviews and becoming friendly with the local residents, who didn't instantly open up to Capote. During his and Lee's time in Kansas, the Clutters' suspected killers were caught in Nevada and brought back to Kansas, giving Lee and Capote an opportunity to interview them.

3. Capote compiled 8,000 pages of notes about the murders when writing In Cold Blood.

While working on In Cold Blood, Capote collected thousands of pages of notes, which he carried his around in a trunk while doing his research. After selling the rights to the book in 1965, he told the New York Times, "I thank God I won't have to lug those trunks all over the world any longer."

4. Capote spent six years working on In Cold Blood.

It took Truman Capote six years to write In Cold Blood, including the time he spent investigating the murders, taking 8,000 pages of notes, outlining the book, and writing it. Capote explained he worked on his notes for a whole year before writing even one line of the book: "And when I wrote the first word, I had done the entire book in outline, down to the finest detail."

5. In Cold Blood was an instant sensation, particularly in Kansas.

In Cold Blood was first published as a four-part series in the New Yorker in September 1965. In Kansas that month, the New Yorker sold out almost instantly. The book, published a few months later in January 1966, also sold out immediately and became the best-selling book of its time. In Cold Blood made Capote a very wealthy man, earning him more than $2 million.

6. Capote was disappointed In Cold Blood never won any major awards.

Capote was particularly hoping to win the Pulitzer Prize and was reportedly jealous of his friend Harper Lee for winning the 1961 Pulitzer for To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite being childhood friends and beginning their writing careers on the same typewriter, Lee and Capote grew apart after Capote's book was published. One reason may have been that despite all Lee did to help out with the book, she was only briefly acknowledged in its dedication.

7. One prominent critic called Capote "the most outrageously overrated stylist of our time."

Though he called In Cold Blood "a readable, generally interesting book," critic Stanley Kauffmann took serious issue with Capote's writing style, particularly his word choices. "Another woman is 'sparsely fleshed.' Why not 'gaunt' or 'spare' or 'thin'?" Kauffman complained. He criticized what he saw as Capote's insecurity, noting his "continual strain for the unusual word."

8. Capote has been criticized for fictionalizing some events in In Cold Blood.

Though Capote himself was adamant his book was factually accurate, this is widely recognized to be stretching the truth. The last scene in the book, a graveyard conversation between two people, is entirely fictional. Capote eventually acknowledged this, explaining he didn't end the book with the executions because he wanted to "end with peace." Many more inaccuracies and unverifiable "facts" have been unearthed in the years since the book's publication, including a passage describing what one of the murder victims did while alone and a questionable indication of when investigators followed up on a lead.

9. Capote called In Cold Blood the first "nonfiction novel." But some critics disagree.

Capote was famously fond of self-promotion, stating, "I truly don't believe anything like it exists in the history of journalism." Critics have pointed out, however, there is a long tradition of "nonfiction novels" dating all the way back to Daniel Defoe's The Storm (1704) and including other prominent authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and John Steinbeck.

10. Capote said writing In Cold Blood nearly killed him.

In the years following the book's publication, Capote reportedly turned to drugs and alcohol and fought frequently with his friends (including Harper Lee). He never finished another book. He died at 59 from an overdose, and it is not known whether it was an accident or suicide. Capote was once quoted saying:

No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me ... I think, in a way, it did kill me.

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