‘Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.’ (84)
In definition of genre, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) has a wingspan that ranges fiction, nonfiction, and the ambiguous nonfiction novel. In definition of content, it is both a book with ‘dramatic power’ that warrants ‘honorary status as a novel’[i], and a work that consists of ‘rank fabrication’ in the interest of telling and selling an ‘improved’ story.[ii] The book re-tells the murder of the Clutter family, which took place in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. Mr and Mrs Clutter, along with their children, Kenyon and Nancy, were bound and shot in the dead of night – with no apparent motive for the crime and, in the earliest points of the investigations, there were no apparent suspects either. The trail eventually led to Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who were found guilty of the murders and sentenced to death as a result. However, the crime remained largely motiveless given that both killers were misinformed regarding the money that they were likely to find in the Clutter home.
While the work opened Capote to criticism in a number of manners, it is worth noting here, too, that the ploy to make the deaths of the Clutter family more marketable appears to have worked some, given that In Cold Blood has sold millions of copies worldwide and been translated into as many as 30 languages. However, the work is also a literary triumph in manipulation, credited as such by the likes of the academic Melissa W. Noel who teaches the work as a means to show a ‘gradual’ manipulation of a reading audience. In fact, she posits that ‘every reader recognizes it [the manipulation at play] by the time he reaches Part II’ of the book, though she believes this does nothing to damage the work as ‘a nonfiction book – with a little flair’.[iii]
It would take longer than the space of a single essay to fully investigate In Cold Blood and the compendium of literary criticism attached to it. Furthermore, it is not the intention of this essay to interrogate the (im)moral ambiguities at play in Capote’s writing of the work either. Instead, I will consider Capote’s extensive use of figurative language throughout In Cold Blood – such as the ironic epigraph above – in the interest of underscoring his reliance on literary techniques more commonly associated with fiction, rather than the nonfiction the author subtitled this work to be: ‘A true account of a multiple murder and its consequences’ (my emphasis).
‘Scrubbed, combed, as tidy as two dudes setting off on a double date, they went out to the car.’ (30)
Throughout In Cold Blood, Capote approaches his nonfiction narrative with the flare of a fiction author. Among other techniques, he perhaps relies most heavily on figurative language, not only using it to flavour his prose but also to emotionally influence his readers. Any basic guide on effective authorship will lead a writer towards figurative language techniques as a means to give ‘a sense of immediacy to readers’, alongside calling ‘on the reader’s senses… to make an idea accessible’.[iv] There is more formal research into this matter, too, with linguistic studies articulating ‘figurative language[’s] use as a function of the temporal unfolding of an emotional reaction’, which is to say that figurative language is inextricably bound to the communication of complex emotional reactions to things.[v] This same study goes onto the explore participants’ ‘judgements of the appropriateness of these [figurative language] expressions in specific contexts’, suggesting that ‘people have schematic knowledge of how others react when they are in particular situations and feeling particular emotions’.[vi]
In a fuller summary of this study, it becomes clearer still that figurative language becomes a lens through which we, as readers and listeners, can both observe, understand, and empathise with intense emotional settings. Considering the ways in which figurative language has slipped into the role of cultural colloquialism or idiom status supports this further, as seen in phrases such as: to be hot under the collar; or to be feeling blue. Thus, in a linguistic culture that has become dependent on figurative language to communicate the most extreme of emotions, too – consider, to be red with rage or to be weighed down by grief – it becomes easier still for Capote’s own linguistic devices to be read, in many ways, as common expressions. Subsequently, the acknowledged effects of figurative language, and the ease with which a Western audience is likely to understand the meaning behind such phrases, goes some way to supporting Capote’s clear, and indeed clever, manipulation of his readers through language use which is simultaneously both creative and (mis)leading.
‘But neither Dick’s physique nor the inky gallery adorning it made as remarkable an impression as his face, which seemed composed of mismatching parts. It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off centre.’ (29)
Though of course, it is not only Capote’s manipulation of a readers’ emotions – around the traumatic and murderous events contained within his work – that stands as problematic. It is his blatant attempts to manipulate readers’ response to the men whose hands are responsible for such crimes – namely Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Capote does so in a bid to align readers’ responses with his own misguided favouritism of one killer over the other, a theme that reigns as a key issue within the text. In an early meeting, Capote introduces the reader to Dick with the above description, adding that much of this disfigurement stemmed from an accident that ‘left his long-jawed and narrow face tilted, the left side rather lower than the right’ (29). Capote struggles to resist the pull of figurative language and embellishment again during this moment as he details Dick’s eyes as ‘serpentine, with a venomous, sickly-blue squint’ (29). This early language use around Dick frames him in terms of biblical temptation: serpentine and somehow apple-like. Here, then, he is both the subject (snake) and object (apple) of sinful behaviours. Meanwhile, Perry – also ‘maimed’ in a separate incident – is described as ‘pitifully scarred’, but also beautifully adorned with ‘elaborate’ tattoos. Capote notes that these were of a higher standard than Dick’s bodywork, listing Perry’s in some detail: ‘skulls gleamed, a tombstone loomed, a chrysanthemum flourished’ (30). The genteel feel of Perry’s character was seeded earlier in the work, too, when Capote employed simile to describe his ‘gentle and prim’ voice, ‘a voice that, though soft, manufactured each word exactly, ejected it like a smoke ring issuing from a parson’s mouth’ (22). Again, Capote rests on descriptions that are bound to religious diction, hinting at a semantic field around each murderer: one sinful; one somehow holier.
‘That was half the plot; the second half was: Goodbye, Perry. Dick was sick of him – his harmonica, his aches and ills, his superstitions, the weepy, womanly eyes, the nagging, whispering voice. Suspicious, self-righteous, spiteful, he was like a wife that must be got rid of. And there was but one way to do it: Say nothing – just go.’ (208)
The polarisation of the two murderers at the heart of this work continues beyond religious symbolism and into more overt cultural stereotyping, too. Here, Perry becomes the proverbial ball and chain to Dick’s freedom, a sentiment compounded by the alliterative qualities of ‘weepy, womanly’ – furthered, too, by this clear comparison between Perry and sentimentalities anticipated from women, rather than men. The list structure increases tension, creating a climactic build of irritations from one murderer to the other; however, it is the sibilance employed here, too, that stands to catch a reader’s eye – or indeed, ear. Sibilance – the repetition of letters that create a hissing sound: ‘suspicious, self-righteous, spiteful – is an interesting technique to employ for a character who Capote has previously, and repeatedly, aligned with the snake. One might be inclined to consider this as an addition to that earlier image, given that these words, though written about Perry, are “thought” from Dick’s perspective. Significantly, while described in unsavoury terms here, Dick’s harsh judgements of his co-conspirator are more likely to evoke a reader’s sympathies with Perry again, particularly when coupled with other incidents, or descriptions, in the work; namely, comments such as ‘Perry possessed a quality, the aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded’ (333). Significantly, too, these comments on Perry’s ‘wounded’ and seemingly pitiful character become even more impactful when we note that they are ‘thought’ by one of the detectives, at the moment of admitting the extent of Perry’s guilt in the murders – which was, according to the transcripts available, deservedly greater than Dick’s guilt in the matter, given that the latter purportedly never planned to murder the Clutter family at all. Perhaps this admission of guilt from Perry – one that stood to undo the sympathies carefully laid by Capote in the book up to this point – is why the author then chose to fabricate a death-row admission of remorse from the killer, something that has been famously disputed by sources close to the case in the years since. Detective Dewey – the chief investigator in the Clutters’ murders – commented that despite being physically close to Perry during his execution, ‘he [Dewey] was unsure what Smith had said. Nor did he know how Capote got his information’ regarding an alleged apology.[vii] Significantly, reporters and other media representatives who were present also failed to capture the apology documented by Capote.
Meanwhile, while Perry is a ‘weepy’ or ‘wounded’ womanly character for much of the book, Dick reigns as a dominant figure: ‘his confidence was like a kite that needed reeling in’ (87). In this same passage, Perry ‘notes’ the ‘symptoms of fury rearranging Dick’s expression: jaw, lips, the whole face slackened; saliva bubbles appeared at the corner of his mouth’ (87). In this language use we see, then, not only that is Dick the more confident of the two, but also that he is the feral animal – foaming at the mouth, even – that sits in a stark comparison to the ‘wounded’ animal that his colleague proves to be.
‘Not everyone was attentive; one juror as though poisoned by the numerous spring-fever yawns weighting the air, sat with drugged eyes and jaws so utterly ajar bees could have buzzed in and out.’ (296)
Though of course, it would be remiss to propose that Capote only employs the figurative to explain the characters of Perry and Dick. Throughout, he liberally imposes judgement and critique on other characters and incidents, too, allowing for a flourish in his language use that is more appropriate to a fictionalised narrative than a factual one. Above, for example, he imposes the idea of a dumb-struck juror so taken with the weather that they are unable to contribute fully to the trial proceedings; the implications of this are clear, given the extreme nature of the criminal charges involved. Capote even notes how ‘Green [the judge] woke them [the jurors] up’ before interspersing his – that is, Green’s – own judgement on the case. Throughout there are further spells of creativity as Capote comments on characters speaking with voices that are ‘indignantly astonished, and also despairing’ (112), alongside forming entire thoughts for other characters besides – ‘Dewey envisions them: the captive family…’ (233) – something the author does recurrently. These moments, written in the style of a close third person narration, mark another distinct stylistic feature for something Capote claimed to be a nonfiction work.
There are times, too, when the author turns his attention from judgement to sheer creativity when discussing the killers, integrating a cinematic flare: ‘Perry, sitting on a straw suitcase, was playing a harmonica. Dick was standing at the side of a black-surfaced highway, Route 66, his eyes fixed upon the immaculate emptiness as though the fervour of his gaze could force motorists to materialise’ (150). This, while upholding the division between both killers, is befitting of the opening of a motion picture, wherein one central character is pensive, considerate; the other, confident, demanding. And this ‘immaculate emptiness’ of the road ahead seems a fitting hyperbole through which to explore the journey that unfolds for both men from that point on in the narrative – where they are lost, and trying to find a way through.
‘Among Garden City’s animals are two grey tomcats who are always together – thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits. The chief ceremony of their day is performed at twilight… stopping to scrutinise the engine grilles of parked auto-mobiles… the property of travellers from afar, often yield what the bony, methodical creatures are hunting… Having cruised Main Street, they invariably turn the corner at Main and Grant, then lope along towards Courthouse Square…’ (239-40)
In Cold Blood is undeniably a cult classic. However, to refer to the work as an exemplar of true crime narration is surely a disservice to the likes of Helter Skelter (Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry) and The Stranger Beside Me (Ann Rule), works that, to their credit, endeavour to uphold a commendable level of objectivity over the true crime cases they discuss. This is not to say that In Cold Blood is not well-written, though – far from it. Capote employs a strong narrative structure to explore a tandem timeline of a town rocked by a senseless murder, and two murderers steadfastly trying to avoid their inevitable punishment for the above crime. Alongside that, though, Capote also serves us a masterclass in misinformation given the ways in which his language use attempts to steer the reader response to both killers. Additionally, his blatant attempts to distort facts – something that has received much attention since the work’s original release – distance it further from being an authentic true crime book.[viii] Though the author may have tried to frame the work as innovation, with his assertion that this is somehow a nonfiction novel – an oxymoron for some literary circles – close analysis of the work soon reveals the smoke and mirrors involved. Packed with metaphor, language play and allegory – such as that found in the noted tomcat extract above – In Cold Blood can surely only ever be credited as having a foot in true crime narration, while the other foot remains rooted in make-believe.
[viii] Jack De Bellis presents a linguistic comparison of revisions that were made from the original printing of In Cold Blood – which was serialised in The New Yorker – through to the eventual paperback release. In this work, he documents a high percentage of changes – nearly five-thousand – made, some of which were to alleged direct quotations and speech from persons involved in the case.
Dr Charley Barnes is an author and lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, where she teaches in Creative and Professional Writing. Barnes is a crime and psychological suspense author, and in this work she explores unreliable narration, media representations of crime, and female violence. She is currently researching representations of true crime in contemporary literature.