Saturday Review: In Cold Blood

“I got this idea of doing a really serious big work—it would be precisely like a novel, with a single difference: Every word of it would be true from beginning to end.” — Truman Capote.

Nonfiction is so in right now. There was even a “festival” of sorts in Melbourne  last week, called Non Fiction Now, and the Melbourne Writers Festival for 2012 focused on the style. But it’s not the straight telling of facts that so captures the interests writers and readers alike. It’s how the truth is told, and how much story is rung from the facts.

In Cold Blood follows the murder of the Clutter Family by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. It is an exemplar of the “true crime” genre, and a trendsetter in narrative non-fiction. The book covers issues of capital punishment, redemption, the American idyll, and much else. What’s most interesting about In Cold Blood is that it was published a good year after the hanging of the murder, so almost all the facts were already widely known.

Capote had to step it up a notch.

And, boy, did he ever. The writing is superb, and despite 350 pages of what is essentially an open and shut case, Capote manages to draw fantastic imagery interspersed with interviews and transcripts. It’s hard to believe that it’s all true—certainly some of the dialogue would have been invented—but it’s the creative expression that makes the book so special. I don’t think much of true crime, but this is so much more; In Cold Blood is a deep study of criminology and how it affects those touched by terrible deeds. We empathise deeply with these people, who led real lives. It’s not hard to see how it inspired a genre.

But what can it inspire in me? For one thing, Capote took extensive notes and research. He was there during the case, following it, tracking it, keeping close like a vulture over a corpse, all in order to better describe it. If I want to write nonfiction, it needs to be created and crafted, perfected and laid out how I want it, not necessarily how it was in real life. I can only hope that one day I can write even half as well as Capote. Finally, the most important point is that perhaps every piece of writing needs a bit of fiction injected into it, a thread of creativity to make the truth even more vibrant.

Do you like creative nonfiction? What great “true” reads could you recommend, and what made it more than just a factual retelling?

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