A young murderer sits for five years on death row. His friend, the writer Truman Capote, comes to visit, and notes that he waits “with the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded”. The sympathy and dread in that line – I love it. So utterly characteristic of Capote’s 1966 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, about the senseless murder of a Kansas farmer and his family by two drifters in 1959. It’s a work with a structure so epic (a solid chain of exciting sections) and is altogether so incredibly good that one scarcely needs to make excessive claims for it.
Although people do, endlessly, and in this thoughtful documentary (22 March, 6:45pm) some of those claims are aired, but with real curiosity and a lovely melancholy perfectly captured when the presenter Corin Throsby sighs, of Capote, “I listen to his voice and I feel like he is a friend of mine.”
One of the (habitual) claims made for In Cold Blood in this programme is that, unusually, it makes the criminal “someone you have compassion for”. Hmm. I can only say – see Macbeth? Also, it’s argued that Capote was effectively ushering in a new kind of journalism: the great writer turning to non-fiction. But what of Chekhov’s 1891 investigation into the prison conditions on Siberia’s Sakhalin Island?
As for Capote waiting an unprecedented length of time (more than five years) for his grim narrative to reach its ultimate conclusion? Take Kurt Vonnegut’s composition of Slaughterhouse-Five: 25 tough years. Anyway, my point is that such myths surround In Cold Blood in part because Capote himself did a fantastic sales job on it. But more, perhaps, because he was someone whose era and aura has retained a special glamour.
He “captured a world for urbanites” says the documentary. So true. And not just the lonely world of rural Kansas, but his own ever-implied world. Here was a guy who pointedly projected the myth of the self-created man, in an addictive, Gatsbyesque, very American way. One of those gloriously made up people. Ah, the New Yorker of the 1950s! Such sophistication! Oh, to be as strange, and as talented as Truman Capote, as he stared, so sadly, into the abyss.
Literary Pursuits – Truman Capote: In Cold Blood
BBC Radio 3
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning