When Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' was first published in 1966, he characterised it as the first "non-fiction novel". What remains remarkable about it, even in a market suffused with narrative history, is Capote's ground-breaking ability to fuse fact with the hard-won skills of fiction. The book – for which he made a reputed 8000 pages of research notes – is plotted and structured with taut writerly flair. Its characters pulse with recognisable life; its places are palpable. Careful prose binds the reader to his unfolding story. Put simply, the book was conceived of journalism and born of a novelist.
Capote engages us from the outset with forensically precise detail that leaves no peeling flake of old Kansas paint unnoticed. First Holcomb, a small town on the limitless wheat plains; then the weather, "ideal for apple-eating, the whitest sunlight descending from the purest sky"; then the house, with spongy carpets, gleaming floors, the whiff of lemon-scented polish and crushed tissues in the corners of its bedroom drawers. In thus slowing the pace, Capote ramps up the tension. We know that this space and its bright silence will be violated. We know that the "certain foreign sounds" are gunshots that will snuff out the lives of four members of the kindly, Methodist Clutter family.
Like the finest crime thrillers, Capote's narrative is rooted in place while the rhythm of the narrative is constantly manipulated. He switches focus between the Clutters and their murderers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, marking their differences while binding their fates together. Tenses and time frames are intercut and slippery; perspectives are distorted so that the reader is taunted by what she knows yet does not know and, when it comes, the crime itself unfolds in a series of episodes – snapshots of an open purse, cut telephone wires, a bloody footprint. We are voyeurs, peering through a fractured glass pane, powerless to intervene. Holcomb's cop, Al Dewey, reminds us that this is real: "when it comes to murder" he says "you can't respect grief".
Capote is a deeply sympathetic narrator and his apparent detachment is deceptive. Holcomb festers with distrust as, far distant, Perry Smith's boots soak in a washbasin, tinting the water pink. Frustration grows among the officers investigating the apparently motiveless crime; blind alleys are fretfully negotiated. In parallel, the backgrounds of the ex-con drifters emerge. Then, once arrested, it is their fates on which we are fixed and through their eyes that we revisit the murder. "I thought he was a very nice gentleman... I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat". Presenting the crime as a virtually impersonal act, the soft, whispery rush of Smith's voice smacks us in the solar plexus.
Vivid, painstakingly constructed, simultaneously fevered and lingeringly sad, 'In Cold Blood' is a transfixing read. In 1966, this was a new kind of journalism; now, Capote's revolutionary and compelling approach to narrative non-fiction has been much copied, but rarely bettered.
Kate Colquhoun's 'Mr Briggs' Hat' is published by Sphere