Capote: Ethical or not?

Author: Truman Capote
Title: In Cold Blood, Chapter 1
Publisher: The New Yorker,  Sept. 25, 1965.

In Tuesday’s class, we read and discussed the first chapter of In Cold Blood, written by Truman Capote (See fig. 1). Capote was a New York writer who wrote the first true crime novel about the Clutter family from Holcomb, Kansas who were brutally murdered by two killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Capote wrote this account of the murders and the subsequent trials of the murderers and their later executions.

One aspect that our class discussed was the structure of In Cold Blood. Because it is written as a crime novel, it becomes more literary than straight journalism. By establishing the characters of each family member in the first chapter, the reader becomes invested in the people they read about.  For example, we are introduced to Nancy Clutter who is introduced as a wonderful young woman who helps neighborhood children in baking and playing music. The people of Holcomb described her as a girl who “was an enigma the community pondered and solved by saying, “She’s got character. Gets it from her old man’” (18). By giving details and endearing qualities, Capote gets the reader to like the character they are reading about.


Fig. 2: Truman Capote was an American writer must well known for his piece, “In Cold Blood” that was classified as the first true crime novel.

One stylistic element that our class discussed and agreed upon, was that in comparing Capote’s piece with that of Hersey, we decided that they were effective but in the different ways that both authors portray the characters. Hersey uses sentiment and a composite character in “Joe is Home Now” while in his piece “Hiroshima”, he uses 6 different but parallel characters to piece together different accounts. By showing these parallels, he ties them together by the one moment of the bomb dropping but they never actually meet as the entire piece revolves around the bomb dropping.

Capote starts with the big moment- the murders of the Clutter family and then switches to the criminals before finally arrive back to the victims by the end of the book. This first chapter built on the characterization of the Clutter family and their murderers but he also tells the reader from the very start that something terrible happened in Holcomb, KS. He starts “At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them–four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again–those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely and as strangers” (5). By telling readers beforehand, he gets rid of any foreshadowing and builds his story around the climatic moment.


Fig. 2: Four members of the Clutter family were murdered in Holcomb, Kansas and are the characters that Truman Capote wrote his novel, “In Cold Blood” about.

The final aspect of this piece that we discussed was the ethics Capote used to write this story. He investigated these people who died, with the help of his childhood friend Harper Lee, by getting to know them through other people. We discussed how one pivotal scene is between Mr. Clutter and his daughter Nancy and both died before Capote could ever have interviewed them so Capote made up large portions of this. Also the dialogue between Nancy and her friend Susan have a conversation with such brief and short sentences that people don’t normally talk in. This brought the questions of how did Capote interview? How did he take notes? We don’t really know the answer to these questions but one thing we agreed upon was that Capote was using their story for his own fame, especially as a movie was made out of his novel. In the film especially, we watched how Capote had hired lawyers for both the guys who murdered the Clutter family because he needs to keep them alive in order to interview him.

In conclusion, although we enjoyed Capote’s In Cold Blood for its style of writing and his detailed descriptions of characters but we found some issues with the ethics that Capote used to write this piece. Although he wrote a wonderful piece, the way in which he wrote it begs the question of how ethical a writer must be when writing for the general public.

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