Originally published as a four-part article in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood had made Truman Capote a millionaire and a national celebrity even before the book’s highly touted publication. Capote was fascinated by the mystery of the brutal, seemingly unmotivated 1959 murders of respected, prosperous Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and their two teen-age children, Nancy and Kenyon. Encouraged by New Yorker editor William Shawn, Capote followed the case for years, living in Kansas much of the time, interviewing scores of people (at first accompanied by his friend, the novelist Harper Lee), and eventually becoming confidant to Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the two men convicted of the murders, as they waited on death row during a series of appeals. Capote became especially close to Smith, whose lonely childhood, physical self-consciousness, and artistic aspirations resonated with the writer. Published serially just months after the executions of Smith and Hickock, Capote’s project had accumulated unprecedented interest, partly because of its sensational subject matter but also because of Capote’s established literary reputation, his personal flamboyance, and his widely publicized claims that he was creating a paradoxical new literary form, the nonfiction novel. In 1967, Pax Enterprises/Columbia produced a film adaptation of In Cold Blood that closely follows Capote’s narrative design, his interest in the psychological makeup of the criminals (especially Smith), and his commitment to realism (director Richard Brooks even staged the murder scene at the Clutter’s home). However, the film omits much of Capote’s close, almost anthropological attention to the Clutter family’s small-town life, focusing instead on the flight and subsequent capture, trial, and execution of Hickock and Smith. As in the novel, the film waits until deep into the narrative to present the Clutter murders, which are “recalled” by Smith as a testimonial flashback. In contrast to Capote’s subtle rhetorical stance, Brooks adds the character of a reporter, who operates as the film’s conscience, questioning the morality of capital punishment, thus making explicit the implied irony of the title.
Although described as nonfiction on trade lists, In Cold Blood won the 1966...
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