Fact or fiction – Capote in cold blood

The greatest question of the evening was that of credulity regarding Truman Capote’s assignation of “non-fiction novel” to his renowned book, and our October selection, In Cold Blood.

This detail alone sustained considerable debate. From the opening essay and for the first 45 minutes, stakes were claimed, evidence was marshaled, witnesses took the stand, harrumphs were harrumphed. Contemporary critics were cited who disputed the accuracy of Capote’s account.

Capote’s own testimony that he took no notes and used no audio recordings in the reporting of long, private, detailed conversations strains belief. The book contains no footnotes or citations. He claims to remember 95% of what was related to him by the perpetrators of the central crime in the book, and a host of other interviewees. Was Capote a savant, did he have photographic memory? or was he full of shit? We will never know.

For the viewer who has not read the book, Capote tells the story of the murder of the Clutter family in the farming community of Holcomb in western Kansas by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the search for the killers, their capture, trial and execution. It is considered the book that birthed the true crime novel genre.

Another matter of debate was whether Truman was more sympathetic toward Perry than Hickock. It was agreed that he humanized both characters. If film adaptations of the writing of the book have any basis, perhaps in research, then it he may indeed have favored Perry somewhat, and may have supplied some money and influence against the men receiving the death penalty, which was ultimately carried out.

Although the family background of both of the killers was given in detail, Perry’s psychology seemed to get more focus. One of our group pointed out Perry’s dissociative behavior the night of the killings: at one point he walked out of the house, thought to run, but soon went back in just to see how it would play out.

One interesting question came up: would either of the men have committed the crimes if they had been alone, and all agreed they would not have. There was a classic macho persona between them, with Hickock the brains and Smith the brawn, or at least the one with a bent toward violence and murder.

As the evening closed, we fell to the question of the ethics of the death penalty, the specifics of Kansas law in 1959, and the justice or injustice of the hanging execution the men eventually received. Opinions were divided.

The book for December is Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

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