In Cold Blood: the story behind the first true crime novel
The first true crime novel almost destroyed the man who wrote it. Howard Linskey, an author featured in CBS Reality’s new true crime TV series Written In Blood, finds out why.
The story of the first true crime novel is as famous as the crime that inspired it – and the man who completed the book never wrote another.
Truman Capote was already a literary star in 1959, when he read about the Clutter killings in the quiet town of Holcomb. Capote was famous for writing Breakfast at Tiffany’s but he wanted to try something new – the first ‘non-fiction novel’ – and this felt like the ideal subject.
Herbert Clutter and his family were brutally murdered when two men broke into their farm one night, looking for money they thought was locked in a safe that did not in fact exist. Enraged, they resolved to leave no witnesses. Herbert’s throat was cut then he was blasted with a shotgun; his wife Bonnie, their fifteen-year-old son Kenyon and sixteen-year-old daughter Nancy were all gunned down before their killers fled.
Truman Capote left New York for the scene of the murders, travelling with none other than Harper Lee, his best friend since childhood and author of the recently completed, To Kill A Mockingbird, which would soon become a huge sensation. Capote and Lee arrived at a small town still reeling from the shock of the murders. The eccentric, effeminate, outspoken Capote must have stood out a mile in rural Kansas but he charmed the inhabitants of Holcomb and even the special investigator, Alvin Dewey, to get the inside information he was looking for. The one thing Capote lacked was any trace of the killers. It seemed the police trail had run cold.
Six weeks later, a former cell mate who knew of their plan to rob the safe, identified Perry Smith and Richard ‘Dick’ Hickock as the Holcomb murderers. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to death by hanging, admitting their guilt along the way.
This is where the story of In Cold Blood takes a highly unusual turn. Despite the savage and brutal nature of the crimes, Capote decided it was necessary to get the killer’s version of events, because it would humanise them and make his book more vivid. He arranged to visit the convicted men and struck up an unlikely friendship with them, bonding with Perry Smith in particular, thanks in part to the murderer’s interest in art, music and books. He kept up a correspondence with Smith for five long years, while the death sentences were repeatedly appealed and his novel remained tantalisingly incomplete.
Capote realised he had placed himself in an impossible position by getting too close to the killers. In a bitter twist worthy of any crime story, he did not want Perry to hang, yet needed the sentences to be carried out if he was ever going to have an ending for his book. The mental torment on Capote began to grow.
As one of ten crime authors asked to appear in CBS Reality’s new true crime series Written In Blood, which begins on 3 September, I prefer to keep my distance from real-life killers. Mark Billingham, Peter James, Simon Kernick, Angela Clarke, Marnie Riches, RC Bridgestock, Luke Delaney, Elly Griffiths, Alex Marwood and myself have all written books influenced, in part or whole, by true crimes, ranging from the callous, so-called honour killing of Banaz Mahmod to the horrific James Bulger murder.
My episode covers the infamous Moors murderer, Ian Brady, who, with Myra Hindley, killed five children in the early sixties. My novel The Search features a fictional character, loosely based on Brady and in no way sympathetic to him. When young Susan Verity disappears, suspicion falls on Adrian Wicklow, who shares Brady’s sadistic desire to torment the police. My research on Brady was disturbing enough without actually having to sit down with the real killer, who ironically died, after 51 years in prison, just one week after The Search was published.
Even if I had been writing about the Moors murderers themselves, I could never imagine visiting Brady – let alone striking up a friendship with him – to gain insight into his awful crimes. Rightly or wrongly, Capote put himself through that very process to complete his novel, but it took a terrible toll on him.
Perry Smith and Richard Hickock eventually lost their final appeals and both men went to the gallows on 14 April 1965. They asked Capote to be there when they died and he reluctantly agreed, witnessing Hickock hang but running out of the room just before Perry was executed.
Truman finally had his ending, but the anguish that caused him and the six years it took to finish In Cold Blood drove Capote close to madness. He never finished another book. Instead, he was left with lifelong addictions to drink and drugs that directly contributed to his early demise from liver disease in 1984, aged just 59.
Two Hollywood films have been made about Capote’s obsession with the Clutter family murders and their killers. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman won a best actor Oscar playing him in Capote, while British actor, Toby Jones, earned rave reviews for his equally brilliant portrayal of Truman in Infamous.
The book was finally published in 1966 and was a huge success. In Cold Blood is still in print and considered something of a masterpiece. The first true crime novel has been translated into thirty languages and sold millions of copies. Whether Truman himself considered it all worth it in the end is debatable.
“I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.”
– Quote attributed to Perry Smith by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood.
Written in Blood airs every Sunday at 10pm from 3 September, exclusively on CBS Reality. Howard Linskey’s episode on the Moors Murderers will be broadcast on 5 November. Find out more here.