In Cold Blood and the Problem with Rhetoric - Prithiva Sharma

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In Cold Blood (1996) is Truman Capote’s "nonfiction" novel, based on and depicting the murders of four members of the Clutter Family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. The victims were – Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenage children – Nancy and Kenyon.

The reason nonfiction is within quotes is that the novel toes the boundary line between fiction and nonfiction. It would not be inaccurate to say that the novel uses facts to not only depict, but also to surmise and present an insight that merely stating the facts would not be able to achieve. This comes through most clearly in his representation of the two convicted killers – Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock.

In representing the two characters, there seems to be a distinct sympathy for Perry Smith. One reason can be the tumultuous past Smith had – having been abused as a child, suffering from malnutrition and rotating between orphanages and detention homes. Some of the parts the novel reflects this slight bias is in the way the “narrator” depicts Dick – a man with “pedophiliac tendencies”, who knows about Nancy Clutter and, in the novel, admits that the desire to rape her was also a catalyst for their invasion in the Clutter home apart from mere robbery. The narrator’s gaze into Dick’s mind is often harsh. But, just like different facts project different versions of the truth, there are opinions about Dick which interrupt his so-called evil image. This comes with Mrs. Hickock, who described Dick as “the best-natured little kid” and maintains a stand that there is more to Dick than what is thrown around in the courtroom. At the same time, the narratorial gaze on Perry is almost sympathetic. This is not to say that Dick was sidelined as the “bad guy” of the pair and Perry was the recipient of all the sympathy.

Capote, in his characterization of the two convicts, maintains a balance of facts (the how and why of the murder stated, straightforward) and turning those facts into telling opinions. He describes Perry “as a child, poor and meanly treated, as a foot-loose youth, as an imprisoned man…”, and at the courtroom, as one of the bystanders talked specifically about Perry,“Perry Smith. Oh my God. He’s had such a rotten life.” Capote’s description of Smith’s past and detailing his abuse and mistreatment unconsciously leads the reader to, not necessarily taking a sympathetic stand, but to begin to understand where Smith’s tendency or urge to rob and kill came from. But, to go along with this sympathetic rhetoric, Capote’s narrator also includes details on perceptions of Perry’s crimes and Perry’s own account of it. Perry, in a conversation with Donald Cullivan says, “I don’t feel anything about it [the murder]. I wish I did. But nothing about it bothers me a bit. Half an hour after it happened, Dick was making jokes and I was laughing at them. Maybe we’re not human. I’m human enough to feel sorry for myself.” A journalist at the courthouse, Richard Parr, also comments on a spectators sympathy for Perry by saying, “Maybe I drink too much, but I sure as hell never killed four people in cold blood.”

Capote’s writing is filmic and uses the concept of “panopticon” sufficiently. The idea of the panopticon is that of a central observational unit of surveillance that is invisible to the people on the receiving end of that gaze. In this novel, the narratorial gaze is the panopticon gaze – which observes and oversees all perspectives and facts, which are depicted through the constantly changing points of view, and acts as the central omniscient gaze.

To talk about Capote’s filmic gaze, I borrow from a true crime documentary The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. The way Capote has described scenes and events in the novel are similar to that of the way the scenes work in the documentary. This is through the way the narrator transitions from one spatial space (say, the Clutters’ house) to the other (the bar Perry sits in). There also exist minor details – the domestic activities in the Clutter house on the morning of the murder, for instance – that are detailed in a way visual mediums often do.

One scene specifically threads Capote’s written narrative and the documentary’s visual one together – the event of a large crowd gathering to attend the Clutters’ funeral, in an act of solidarity and the event of a formation of a memorial for Gabriel (the victim) where people visited and left small tokens for him.

Capote’s narrative poses an ethical issue – where does one draw the line between facts and rhetoric. This is majorly in his representation of the two killers and the (maybe intentional or unintentional) pity and sympathy those characters lead the reader into developing.

Developing a narrative with facts, profiling a person or interviewing them – especially in cases of true crime genre – requires a great deal of contemplation. It is not only the facts you choose to represent but also the how you represent them affecting the rhetoric of the narrative. In Capote, his detailing of the two killers’ past is arguably deeper than his detailed concerns with the Clutters. While it does serve the purpose of reflecting how crime often begins with misplaced thoughts and seemingly harmless antagonistic behavior (like in the case of Hickock) and develops into a cold-blooded crime.

Capote’s narrative is an example of manipulation of language while still utilizing facts. Be it the constant movement of points of view and spaces, which makes for a constantly unsettling and startling read, or the language that persuades the reader to not only shudder at and be revolted by the murders, but also to get a glimpse, however involuntary, into the murderers’ minds and try to pick out their motives.

While creating with facts, as I understand from In Cold Blood and translate into my own writing, what remains is a thin line between using facts to create a narrative and building a fictional narrative based on facts. Since there is no narrative (unless it belongs to the genre of direct reporting) that is just a string of facts attached within a framework and almost always includes the authorial gaze in some way or the other, it is dubious to call it “non-fiction”.

Truman Capote’s novel – with its ethical questions, problematic rhetoric, character details and descriptions and an overall startling language – is what is often termed as a “true crime nonfiction” novel. But at the same time, it is the novel itself that stands in contrast to that view as it shapes a narrative with a gaze that isn’t a mere detailing of facts but construction of a narratorial viewpoint with those facts. And that is probably what “creating with facts” does – tiptoeing the line between fact and fiction.


Narrator is in quotes because in his work In Cold Blood specifically, since it is nonfiction, it is difficult to separate Capote’s authorial gaze from the narrator’s perspective.

In Cold Blood, Random House (1966); 159

Melissa W. Noel, 2011; 52

Capote, 166

Developed by Jeremy Benthan in 18th CE

Brian Knappenberger, 2020,


Capote, T. (1966). In Cold Blood. Random House.

Hickman, T. (2005). "The Last To See Them Alive": Panopticism, The Supervisory Gaze, And Catharsis In Capote's "In Cold Blood". Studies in the Novel , 464-476.

Murray, E. (1973). "In Cold Blood": The Filmic Novel and the Problem of Adaptation. Literature/Film Quarterly , 132-137.

Noel, M. W. (2011). A Cold Manipulation of Language. The English Journal , 50-54.

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