In Cold Blood

Fiction or non-fiction?


Non-fiction or fiction?


. Non-fiction…

In 1959, a wealthy farmer and respected pillar of his small Kansas town was murdered along with his wife and two teenage children in a coldly brutal manner at the climax of what seemed to be a case of burglary gone extremely wrong. His throat was cut, then – like the other victims – he was shot in the head at point blank range with a shotgun. In the aftermath, the stunned community both demanded the culprits be brought to justice and feared for which of their own number was responsible – for there was no doubt amongst them that one of their neighbours was a conscienceless killer.

After months of fruitless investigation, during which no shred of evidence nor thread of logic could connect anyone to the crime, local or otherwise, a tenuous link was discovered and two men were arrested, quickly confessing to everything. Their trial, imprisonment and execution brought the story to a close while resolving almost nothing of the deeper mystery behind why they did what they did, confirming only the starkest of facts.

X. …or fiction?

When the news first breaks a strange man halfway across America is fascinated, travelling to the town in question to interview friends and acquaintances, neighbours and employees, investigators and – eventually – even the killers themselves, committing to memory their thoughts and impressions. The resulting work sees his prose intermingled with the actual words of the ordinary and extra-ordinary people he speaks to over the six years between the deaths which bookend this grim, disturbing tale – or so he would have you believe.

Accusations of invention occurred almost immediately after publication. The text – which recreates as a four-part narrative the last day of the doomed family; the life on the lam of their murderers; the investigation and trial; and the killers’ incarceration and execution – is decorated with uncredited quotations throughout, lending it an air of authenticity and even omniscience. How accurate these quotes are, and how much of the story woven around them is true and how much fabricated in pursuit of a satisfying yarn, is up for debate; as at the time was the perceived moral failure in transforming a real-life tragedy into mere entertainment.

What can’t be denied is just how entertaining it is. From the chorus of voices rising on the page emerge frighteningly real characters. Frightening in the victims, for showing the complacent security of everyday lives and how savage the destruction of this familiar existence can be; and in the killers, for their unexpected humanity and the startling ease with which one comes to empathise with them. As the conclusion approaches issues of actual guilt and questionable responsibility, and the ethics of capital punishment, come to the fore, provoking much reflection as the final, bitter-sweet pages are turned.

So, fiction, or non-fiction?

What is certain is that six people lost their lives, the first four at the hands of the last two. Perhaps everything else is open to question – except that Truman Capote’s nov… Truman Capote’s book is a tender, horrible, fascinating read.


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