Banned Book Club: In Cold Blood
Title: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Challenge status: Capote’s Edgar Award winning work (1966, for Best Fact Crime book) is #53 on Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, and frequent target of banning attempts (frequently challenged classics) according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #33 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.
Why: In Georgia (2000) challenged for sex, profanity, and violence. Banned, but later reinstated. In 2012, was challenged in California (a Glendale high school’s AP English curriculum) as “too violent for a young audience;”…but the school board approved the book for Advanced Placement students anyway.
First line: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plans of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.'”
In Cold Blood was hailed as the creation of a new genre, “true crime”. Certainly Capote evokes the drama of the heinous crime (nighttime home invasion and brutal murder of a family of four) and the resulting shockwaves that ran through the community and the nation, as investigators and neighbors waited for the criminals to emerge and be brought to justice.
If you’ve read or seen “Breakfast at Tiffany’s“, (one of Capote’s other famous works) you might be surprised that such a clever and urbane novelist would, inspired by a short article in the New York Times, opt to spend years painstakingly researching the details of a crime that occurred in the middle of Kansas. In fact the “nonfiction novel” was Capote’s last major work, though some short stories and articles were published later.
Around the time I started the book, I watched the first half of Capote, starring the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role, supported fabulously by Catherine Keener as Truman’s longtime friend Harper Lee. I watched part of the movie, then read part of the book – finished the movie, then finished the book. Wow. It really added to my appreciation of both.
First of all – cementing my impression of Harper Lee as just a super kick-ass woman in general – and connected the dots for me about the funny little boy Scout and her brother Jem befriended in To Kill A Mockingbird (that would be Truman Capote as a child). She helped Capote with his research for the book, as they were still good friends as adults.
Secondly – giving dimension to the unnamed narrator of In Cold Blood. The movie helps clarify both the investigative process required, and the role that Capote played in the multi-year story from the crime being committed to the execution of the confessed killers. Though not discussed in the book, the movie shows some background on how Capote was involved in the investigation before the accused were found, and then after their capture, how he may have established relationships with the prisoners (Richard Hickock and Perry Smith) to fill out the details of his book. The movie also highlights the tension of the differing motives of confessor and transcriber: one seeks to avoid death, another to complete a project. Both may have been sincere, but authenticity limited due to their cross-purposes.
Those fellows, they’re always crying over killers. Never a thought for the victims. -Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
Capote’s involvement in the investigation, and his subsequent account of the details, has not been without controversy. Perhaps given Capote’s flamboyant incorporation of exaggerations and little fictions within his own social life (his affectations included name-dropping and suggesting he had close relationships with famous/powerful people that he’d never met), the author has been accused of incorporating a little too much storytelling into his own “nonfiction novel”. Even as recently as this year questions are still being asked about the investigations and prosecution of Hickock and Smith, with some fingers being pointed to Capote for taking too many liberties with the facts of the case. As Laura Miller describes in her article on the topic in Salon this year, “The person who helps the most is often the one whose version of the story gets the most prominent play.”
Perhaps something for us all to consider, novelists aren’t the only ones who paint stories for us. Great journalism leads to great stories, but not all great stories are the work of great journalism.