Saturday, January 16, 2016

My hero / Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at 50

Truman Capote at the ranch, in 1967,
where four members of the Clutter family were murdered in 1959

Truman Capote’s 

In Cold Blood at 50

Capote’s literary masterpiece about a real killing spree in a small Kansas community paved the way for the non-fiction novel and remains a tense and unsettling read 

Rupert Thomson
Saturday 16 January 2016 11.00 GMT

hough Truman Capote did not, as he liked to claim, invent the non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood (published 50 years ago this week) remains a literary monument. If we look back, we can see its influence everywhere – in Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam classic The Things They Carried and even in more recent novels such as Quiet Dell, in which Jayne Anne Phillips builds a narrative around the crimes and trial of a 1930s serial killer.

Capote’s early works were carefully wrought, slightly precious versions of swamp gothic, but his groundbreaking 1957 profile of Marlon Brando, “The Duke in his Domain”, testified to his desire “to do something else”. Inspiration came from an innocuous New York Times article reporting the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Capote’s initial idea was to examine the effects of a savage, senseless killing on a small community in the middle of nowhere, but the swift arrest of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith changed everything. In researching Smith’s backstory, Capote found disturbing echoes of his own past. Though he prized coolness and objectivity, he could not help but reveal where his sympathies lay. The feckless killer, Smith, became the emotional linchpin of the book, walking an almost supernatural line between fiction and non-fiction, even though he was real. Tellingly, it was Smith’s cold-blooded execution, and not the Clutters’ murder, that gave the book its title.

Perry Smith is led by police officers into the courthouse in 1960.
Perry Smith is led by police officers into the courthouse in 1960.
Photograph: William Straeter/

That In Cold Blood has literary merit is not in doubt – 50 years on, it is a surprisingly tense, sinewy and unsettling read – but what makes it unforgettable is the way it captures the spooky, unspoken contract between the observer and the observed. Despite Capote’s identification with Smith and Hickock, there came a point when he realised that he needed them to be executed. It was William Faulkner who identified the essential amorality of the writer when he said that he would “rob his mother” to get his work done, but praying that two men – even two guilty men – will hang so you can complete your masterpiece is not a position in which any writer – fiction or non-fiction – wants to find themself.


001 My hero / Oscar Wilde by Michael Holroyd
002 My hero / Harley Granville-Barker by Richard Eyre
003 My hero / Edward Goldsmith by Zac Goldsmith
004 My hero / Fridtjof Nansen by Sara Wheeler 
005 My hero / Mother Mercedes Lawler IBVM by Antonia Fraser

007 My hero / Ernest Shepard by Richard Holmes
008 My hero / JG Ballard by Will Self
009 My hero / Alan Ross by William Boyd
010 My hero / Ben the labrador by John Banville

011 My hero / Vicent van Gogh by Margaret Drabble
012 My hero / Franz Marek by Eric Hobsbawm


017 My hero / Jack Yeats by Colm Tóibín
018 My hero / Francisco Goya by Diana Athill
019 My hero / Max Stafford-Clark by Sebastian Barry
020 My hero / Arthur Holmes by Richard Fortey

036 My hero / Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban
037 My hero / Beryl Bainbridge by Michael Holroyd
038 My hero / Charles Schulz by Jenny Colgan
039 My hero / Oliver Knussen by Adam Foulds
040 My hero / Annie Proulx by Alan Warner

041 My hero / David Lynch by Paul Murray
042 My hero / Edwin Morgan by Robert Crawford
043 My hero / Anne Lister by Emma Donoghue
044 My hero / Jane Helen Harrinson by Mary Beard
045 My hero / Edmund Burke by David Marquand
046 My hero / Shelagh Deleaney by Jeanette Winterson
047 My hero / Christopher Marlowe by Val McDermid
048 My hero / Gwen John by Anne Enright
049 My hero / Michael Mayne by Susan Hill
050 My hero / Stanley Spencer by Howard Jacobson

051 My hero / William Beveridge by Will Hutton
052 My hero / Jean McConville by Amanda Foreman
053 My hero / Alexander Pushkin by Elaine Feinstein
058 My hero / Cy Twombly by Edmund de Waal

079 My hero / Gene Wolfe by Neil Gaiman
087 My hero / Alberto Moravia by John Burnside
096 My hero / Isaac Babel by AD Miller
097 Lucian Freud by Esi Edugyan
100 Thomas Tranströmer by Robin Robertson
102 My hero / David Hockney by Susan Hill


190 My hero / Iris Murdoch by Charlotte Mendelson
194 My hero / René Descartes by James Kelman
199 My hero / Albert Camus by Geoff Dyer


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