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True Crime Book Club - Past Titles: Aug. 2022

Trigger Warning: Take a look through our previous titles from our True Crime Book Club.

"In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

  1. The epigraph to In Cold Blood translates to: Brothers, men who live after us, Let not your hearts be hardened against us, Because, if you have pity for us poor men, God will have more mercy toward you. Why did Capote begin the book with this quote?
    1. Francois Villon, "The Ballad of the Hanged Men"
      1. François Villon, pseudonym of François de Montcorbier or François des Loges, (born 1431, Paris - died after 1463), one of the greatest French lyric poets. He was known for his life of criminal excess, spending much time in prison or in banishment from medieval Paris.
  2. Why do you think Capote introduces readers to the town of Holcomb before any of the people in this book?
  3. What is your first impression of the Clutter family? 
    1. What kind of family is the Clutter household? 
    2. In what way does Capote create sympathy for them? 
    3. Do you feel they represented the American Dream?
  4. How does Capote, as a writer, handle the actual murder of the Clutter family? Or is it too gruesome, too heartbreaking to discuss?
  5. Capote called In Cold Blood a “nonfiction novel.” What does that phrase imply? How does In Cold Blood compare to true crime books, documentaries, or podcasts you’ve read/watched/listened to?
    1. “Capote called his experiment a “nonfiction novel,” which he defined as “a narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual.” - Mental Floss (2021)
  6. Who did you pity while reading this book? 
  7. Who did you trust while reading the book?
  8. Discuss the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. 
    1. What kind of men were they? 
    2. What were their motives in committing murder? 
    3. Talk about their backgrounds and psychological make-ups? Think, for instance, about Perry Smith's chilling comment: "I thought he was a very nice gentleman.... I thought so right up to the moment I cut this throat." 
    4. What did you think of Dick and Perry’s relationship? 
      1. How are they similar and how are they different?
  9. In many ways, In Cold Blood is about the murderers. 
    1. Do you feel they deserve such attention? 
    2. Do you think that Capote pulls off the near impossible—does he build sympathy, in your mind, for the killers? 
    3. Does he endow them—Perry Smith, in particular—with any kind of humanity?
    4. Or does he depict them as savage animals, devoid of human redemption?
  10. How do the people of Holcomb feel about the murders? How do they feel about Capote writing about the murders?
    1. How long did it take for the town to thaw out enough so that you were accepted and you could get to your interviewing? “About a month. I think they finally just realized that we were there to stay--they'd have to make the best of it. Under the circumstances, they were suspicious. After all, there was an unsolved murder case, and the people in the town were tired of the thing and frightened. But then, after it all quieted down--after Perry and Dick were arrested--that was when we did most of the original interviews. Some of them went on for three years--though not on the same subject, of course. I suppose if I used just 20 percent of all the material I put together over those years of interviewing, I'd still have a book two thousand pages long!” - The New York Times (1966)
    2. Did you ever show sections of the book to witnesses as you went along? “I have done it, but I don't believe in it. It's a mistake because it's almost impossible to write about anybody objectively and have that person really like it. People simply do not like to see themselves put down on paper. They're like somebody who goes to see his portrait in a gallery. He doesn't like it unless it's overwhelmingly flattering--I mean the ordinary person, not someone with genuine creative perception. Showing the thing in progress usually frightens the person, and there's nothing to be gained by it. I showed various sections to five people in the book, and without exception, each of them found something that he desperately wanted to change. Of the whole bunch, I changed my text for one of them because, although it was a silly thing, the person genuinely believed his entire life was going to be ruined if I didn't make the change.” - The New York Times (1966)
    3. “Truman Capote left a bad lasting impression on the townsfolk of Holcomb due to the discrepancies throughout his novel. However, Harper Lee left the town with a better reputation. She kept in touch with some of the people involved in the case, including Alvin Dewey’s son, Paul, who told his story in Cold Blooded.” - True Crime Edition (2021)
  11. Why do you think Capote ended the book the way that he did?
  12. With this book, Truman has been credited with developing a new genre of writing: "literary nonfiction." What might that term mean, and how does In Cold Blood differ from straight crime reporting? Why did Capote create the kind of story he did, and what is its impact on the reader of this new approach?
    1. Soon after publication, Capote said in an interview that his nonfiction novel stemmed from the fact that journalism is an unexplored literary medium “Because…the reporter, unlike the fantasist, has to deal with actual people who have real names. If they feel maligned, or just contrary, or greedy, they enrich lawyers (though rarely themselves) by instigating libel actions. This last is certainly a factor to consider, a most oppressive and repressive one. Because it's indeed difficult to portray, in any meaningful depth, another being, his appearance, speech, and mentality, without to some degree, and often for quite trifling cause, offending him. The truth seems to be that no one likes to see himself described as he is or cares to see exactly set down what he said and did. Well, even I even can understand that--because I don't like it myself when I am the sitter and not the portraitist; the frailty of egos!--and the more accurate the strokes, the greater the resentment…What I think is that reporting can be made as interesting as fiction and done as artistically--underlining those two "as" es. I don't mean to say that one is a superior form to the other. I feel that creative reportage has been neglected and has great relevance to 20th-century writing. And while it can be an artistic outlet for the creative writer, it has never been particularly explored.” - The New York Times (1966)

Cold Blooded': New Doc Expands on 'In Cold Blood'

Birthname - Truman Streckfus Persons

• Birth - September 30, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

• Death - August 25, 1984, in Los Angeles, California

• Awards - two-time O.Henry Memorial Short Story Prize winner; National Institute of Arts and Letters member

When Truman Capote debuted on the New York literary scene in 1948, no one had seen anything quite like him. Capote soon became famous for his intensely readable and nuanced short stories, novels, and novellas, but he was equally famous as a personality, gadfly, and bon vivant - not to mention as a crime writer. Capote’s much-imitated 1965 book, In Cold Blood, all but invented the narrative true-crime genre.


  • The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel
    • What is the first step in producing a "nonfiction novel?"
      • “The difficulty was to choose a promising subject. If you intend to spend three or four or five years with a book, as I planned to do, then you want to be reasonably certain that the material not soon "date." The content of much journalism so swiftly does, which is another of the medium's deterrents. A number of ideas occurred, but one after the other, and for one reason or another, each was eventually discarded, often after I'd done considerable preliminary work. Then one morning in November 1959, while flicking through The New York Times, I encountered on a deep-inside page this headline: Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain. The story was brief, just several paragraphs stating the facts: A Mr. Herbert W. Clutter, who had served on the Farm Credit Board during the Eisenhower Administration, his wife, and two teen-aged children, had been brutally, entirely mysteriously, murdered on a lonely wheat and cattle ranch in a remote part of Kansas. There was nothing really exceptional about it; one reads items concerning multiple murders many times in the course of a year.”
    • Then why did you decide it was the subject you had been looking for?
      • “I didn't. Not immediately. But after reading the story, it suddenly struck me that a crime, the study of one such, might provide the broad scope I needed to write the kind of book I wanted to write. Moreover, the human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time. I thought about it all that November day, and part of the next, and then I said to myself: Well, why not this crime? The Clutter case. Why not pack up and go to Kansas and see what happens? Of course, it was a rather frightening thought - to arrive alone in a small, strange town, a town in the grip of an unsolved mass murder. Still, the circumstances of the place being altogether unfamiliar, geographically and atmospherically, made it that much more tempting. Everything would seem freshly minted - the people, their accents and attitudes, the landscape, its contours, the weather. All this, it seemed to me, could only sharpen my eye and quicken my ear. In the end, I did not go alone. I went with a lifelong friend, Harper Lee. She is a gifted woman, courageous, and with a warmth that instantly kindles most people, however suspicious or dour. She had recently completed a first novel ("To Kill a Mockingbird"), and, feeling at loose ends, she said she would accompany me in the role of assistant researcher. We traveled by train to St. Louis, changed trains, and went to Manhattan, Kan., where we got off to consult Dr. James McClain, president of Mr. Clutter's alma mater, Kansas State University. Dr. McClain, a gracious man, seemed a little nonplussed by our interest in the case; but he gave us letters of introduction to several people in western Kansas. We rented a car and drove some 400 miles to Garden City. It was twilight when we arrived. I remember the car radio was playing, and we heard: "Police authorities, continuing their investigation of the tragic Clutter slayings, have requested that anyone with pertinent information please contact the Sheriff's office…" If I had realized then what the future held, I never would have stopped in Garden City. I would have driven straight on. Like a bat out of hell.”
    • How long after you went to Kansas did you sense the form of the book? Were there many false starts?
      • “I worked for a year on the notes before I ever wrote one line. And when I wrote the first word, I had done the entire book in outline, down to the finest detail. Except for the last part, the final dispensation of the case - that was an evolving case - that was an evolving matter. It began, of course, with interviews - with all the different characters of the book. Let me give you two examples of how I worked from these interviews. In the first part of the book - the part that's called "The Last to See Them Alive" - there's a long narration, word for word, given by the school teacher who went with the sheriff to the Clutter house and found the four bodies. Well, I simply set that into the book as a straight complete interview - though it was, in fact, done several times: each time, there'd be some little thing which I'd add or change. But I hardly interfered at all. A slight editing job. The school teacher tells the whole story himself - exactly what happened from the moment they got to the house and what they found there. On the other hand, in that same first part, there's a scene between the postmistress and her mother when the mother reports that the ambulances have gone to the Clutter house. That's a straight dramatic scene - with quotes, dialogue, action, everything. But it evolved out of interviews just like the one with the school teacher. Except in this case, I took what they had told me and transposed it into straight narrative terms. Of course, elsewhere in the book, very often it's direct observation, events I saw myself - the trial, the executions.”
    • You've kept yourself out of the book entirely. Why was that--considering your own involvement in the case?
      • “My feeling is that for the nonfiction-novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work. Ideally. Once the narrator does appear, he has to appear throughout, all the way down the line, and the I-I-I intrudes when it really shouldn't. I think the single most difficult thing in my book, technically, was to write it without ever appearing myself, and yet, at the same time, create total credibility.”
    • The case must have left you with an extraordinary collection of memorabilia.
      • “My files would almost fill a whole small room, right up to the ceiling. All my research. Hundreds of letters. Newspaper clippings. Court records - the court records almost fill two trunks. There were so many Federal hearings on the case. One Federal hearing was twice as long as the original court trial. A huge assemblage of stuff. I have some of the personal belongings - all of Perry's because he left me everything he owned; it was miserably little, his books, written in and annotated; the letters he received while in prison. . .not very many. . .his paintings and drawings. Rather a heartbreaking assemblage that arrived about a month after the execution. I simply couldn't bear to look at it for a long time. I finally sorted everything. Then, also, after the execution, that 100-age letter from Perry got to me. In the last line of the letter - it's Thoreau, I think, a paraphrase goes, "And suddenly I realize life is the father and death is the mother." The last line. Extraordinary.”
  • 7 Chilling Facts About Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood 
    • “As of 2016, In Cold Blood was the second-bestselling true crime book ever, topped only by Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi, and Curt Gentry’s account of the Manson Family murders.”
    • “He supposedly compiled 8,000 pages of notes and amassed a collection of files and memorabilia that, in his words, “would almost fill a whole small room, right up to the ceiling.”
    • “In Cold Blood was a huge hit with readers and critics alike, but the book’s success came at an enormous personal cost for its author. “No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me,” Capote told his biographer, Gerald Clarke. “It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me.” In the years following the book’s publication, Capote became increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol, and some of his most cherished personal relationships languished. Even his friendship with Harper Lee deteriorated, partly because of his lifestyle, partly because he failed to acknowledge her contributions to In Cold Blood, and partly because he resented the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote never finished another novel; he died of liver failure in 1984, at the age of 59.”

In Cold Blood (1967 movie)

In Cold Blood (2013 miniseries)


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