The Wall Street Journal scores a few blows to the credibility of what many people consider the finest true crime book ever written, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
While the book is often cited – by myself among others – as a classic true crime piece, it has always been taken for granted that Capote, hardly a journalist, took many liberties with the facts. Capote himself called the work, “a true crime novel,” an oxymoron but his contention nonetheless.
The new information that has been unearthed by the WSJ shows a true crime problem, speaking of the genre itself. It casts doubt on just how the apprehension of one of the suspects went down, and looks at the hero of the book from a different angle, in which the author favored him in exchange for cooperation and access.
Drama makes a book, and yet real life isn’t nearly as dramatic as fiction. If, as the WSJ story says, the culprits in the 1959 slaying of the Clutters, a Kansas farm family, were apprehended five days later than Capote claims, and not by Kansas Bureau of Investigation Detective Alvin Dewey Jr., well, that simply confirms one of the “novel” parts of the book.
The fact that the KBI refuses to be of any help in unraveling the delay in the arrest, if there was one, speaks of a newer department with little regard to its past.
Still, these are small demerits on the genre, which Capote rode to journalistic stardom. But I’m not sure that the WSJ findings are all that groundbreaking.
Additionally, there are some points made in this story that are somewhat off base. It says:
In researching "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote received first-class service from the KBI and Mr. Dewey, its lead detective on the case. Mr. Dewey gave the author access to the diary of 16-year-old Nancy Clutter—her final entry logged only moments before two strangers invaded her home in late 1959 and murdered her, her brother and her parents. Mr. Dewey opened the KBI's case file to Mr. Capote. He pressured press-shy locals to cooperate with the author and granted him extraordinary access to the killers.
This is not the first time the relationship between Dewey and Capote has been scrutinized. This piece from 2005 in the Lawrence, Kansas, newspaper also questioned the book’s treatment of the detective.
All journalists seek the access Dewey gave Capote, from anyone; family member or friend of the victim or perp, or law enforcement agent. I’ve been given terrific access to documents, journals, letters and photos by sources that I cultivated. Sometimes, when warranted, these people have been cast well in the story, because the people who tend to be so transparent and helpful are often the good characters in the seedy world that surrounds any murder. Cops and criminals, often cast in the same mold, have been equally helpful.
It’s also pointed out that Capote used his leverage to negotiate an outsized contract - worth up to $181,000 by today’s measure – for Dewey’s wife to serve as a consultant in the film version of the book. Today, such largesse by connection is hardly blinked at.
Additionally, we live in a pay to play unethical world of journalism. ABC paid Casey Anthony $200,000 for photos and video, a breach so sick that no one should ever believe a word from that dinosaur network. And the WSJ thinks the Capote gesture, and his relationship with Dewey, was somehow…what?
Then there’s this:
Mr. Capote's defenders note that the rules of non-fiction-book writing, including the footnoting of source material, hardened only after Mr. Capote helped pioneer the genre.
Not true, of course. Non-fiction is to be pure fact, not subject self-dictated rules before or after a certain work. Wouldn’t it be ironic of we could blame In Cold Blood for the poor reputation of the genre?
Today, true crime books are marginalized and disparaged, given low-profile space at “mystery” writing conferences and hidden in bookstores, often among the mystery fiction.
This despite the public’s fascination with crime and the explosion of television shows based on true crimes, as well as reality shows showing the lives of those who commit crimes.
Crime and the public’s fascination with both the legal process, the sleuthing and the acts that prompt it all is at a high point today, mostly because of availability. Cable TV, Amazon, YouTube, Netflix, the latest case profile is right there. Fact, fiction or both, Capote’s book was ahead of the game.