My Favourite Book: In Cold Blood

Ellen Birch 11 October 2017

In Cold Blood is often referred to as a non-fiction novel, yet this is not strictly true. Despite the fact that Truman Capote travelled to Kansas to document the murders of the Clutter family, he also injected a good amount of personal bias and flair for storytelling into the novel that eventually became In Cold Blood.

But I knew none of this when I first read the book: I thought it was a version of the facts, cold, honest and well written. This is what makes it not only one of my favourite novels, what makes it a failed novel too. Capote is potentially the best writer I have read in English. What he writes and the way he writes, rings true. When he describes the cold, or the Kansas farmlands, or the attitude of a policeman, or the way Perry speaks, I’m there. I can feel the cold, I see the wheat blowing in the wind, I sense the policeman’s joviality and determination, I hear Perry talk. Reading In Cold Blood feels cathartic. I feel like I’m seeing the truth, the way it happened, the objective sequence of events. Yet when I realised that not all the events in the novel had happened, I felt a little bit betrayed, and couldn’t help wondering how much of it had felt true, and real, and good because I thought it was telling a true story.

I realised the story wasn’t completely true when I watched Capote, the film in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman immortalised the author, and then I did some research of my own. For the most part, the facts presented in In Cold Blood are true, but many of the conversations and quotes, and some of the scenes, did not occur, or occurred significantly differently to how they are presented in the book. By the time this became widely known, it didn’t matter: In Cold Blood had become a runaway success, both critically and commercially, and had been dubbed the first non-fiction novel. But it mattered to me; I felt cheated. It saddened me to find out that those things that had felt so real, weren’t. That entire scenes whose power came from their reality hadn’t actually happened.

I was disappointed, not least because I suspected that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy In Cold Blood again. I read other books by Capote, but none of them gave me as much enjoyment as In Cold Blood. And then, last Christmas I picked it up again. I brought it with me to Cambridge, and at a point when none of the other books on my shelf appealed, and it was cold outside, I opened it and read the first few pages. And I kept reading. I finished it in one sitting. I couldn’t tell you if I enjoyed it more or less than the first time, but I enjoyed it a lot. And knowing that some of the scenes weren’t true didn’t matter, because the story, the book as a whole, was true.

And I was reminded of another book I had read the year before, El Impostor by Javier Cercas, another non-fiction novel which deals with the story of Enric Marco, a man who falsely claimed to have been in a Nazi concentration camp, a man who remade his story over and over and who claimed that it didn’t matter because, even if it didn’t happen exactly the way he told it, or even if it didn’t happen to him, what he told did happen, to others, in slightly different ways.

Both books are now linked in my head (Cercas mentions In Cold Blood as part of his inspiration, after all), and now I go back to In Cold Blood from time to time, to enjoy the precise, clean language, to read a masterful work of art, and to wonder whether certain lies, despite not having happened, might make the truth more real.