“In Cold Blood”:

To be completely transparent, I did read this as part of a class, and likely would not have picked it out for myself otherwise. Written by Truman Capote (a name I was somewhat familiar with), “In Cold Blood” is a 1965 narrative non-fiction book about the murder of the Clutter family in 1959. While the book did not win a Pulitzer prize or the National Book Award, it did garner the Edgar Award (named after Edgar Allen Poe and celebrating mystery novels) for Best Crime Fact. However, more important than the accolades it did and did not receive, “In Cold Blood” is widely considered to be the first book in the ‘true crime’ genre (well before our contemporary craze), changing the way true crime was written and viewed. It’s an astounding accomplishment to say the least. 

I do find it interesting though, that unlike all non-fiction books published today, Capote did not have a section at the end of his book for notes or sources. Rather, the information is said to be gotten from case filings and interviews, and the reader has to take Capote at his word. This isn’t to say he’s lying, but to note this change. All non-fiction (excluding memoir and autobiography) published now includes a partition in which resources are cited.

In the best way possible, “In Cold Blood” is an uncomfortable read. The continual jumps in perspective, alternating between the Clutters (Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon), their killers, and Alvin Dewey– primary investigator of the case– leaves the audience reeling. It’s undeniably well-researched, written compellingly, and a story that  requires the full attention of the audience. There’s something visceral and unyielding about the subject and the writing of the story. “In Cold Blood” dares the audience not to look away because doing so would be a disservice to the content of the book itself.

It’s impressive how unflinching Capote is in the face of his work, and how dedicated he was in his coverage. He expertly weaves a narrative not just of crime, but a story that sees the Clutter family as a physical representation of the ‘American Dream.’ Though rather than paint the killers than as inherently ‘un-American’ Capote takes the angle of difference. The Clutters and their killers were both attached to the ‘American Dream’, but the Clutters achieved this while the killers never did. So then perhaps the takeaway is that the ‘American Dream’ does not truly exist, or varies depending on the person searching to find it. 

Capote leaves much to the imagination of the reader, allowing the audience to take the information and paint their own picture of guilt, justice, and motivation. Yet, in doing so, Capote blurs the line between the humanization of the killers and their justification.

To say the ethics of true crime are complicated is an understatement. When discussing true crime there is the validation of it as a way to share information and ensure crimes aren’t forgotten, yet there is also the condemnation of it as exploitative.

As is the case with “In Cold Blood”, this line gets blurred. I’m choosing not to include the names of the killers because I’d rather the focus remain on the Clutter family. 

“In Cold Blood” is the story of the Clutter family’s tragedy. It is the story of Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter and Kenyon Clutter. It is a story about the way their lives were violently taken. However, by virtue of being at the center of the story, the Clutters are also the characters without a voice.

The Clutters can not add anything to their narrative. The Clutter family cannot contribute interviews (their surviving children may, but they are rather incidental in the scheme of the whole story), or share previously unexamined incidents. In the course of the book, the Clutters cease to be a family of people who were wrongfully killed, and instead become their killer’s victims. It’s almost as if their lives have been written in passive voice rather than active.

It is not: The Clutter family died because of…

It is: The Clutter family was murdered by…

So while the Clutters are unable to contribute to the narration of their lives and deaths, their killers were alive for months after. Their killers were put on trial, they underwent police interrogation, their were reporters at their executions. There are countless documents with statements from the guilty parties.

It may be a story about the Clutter family, but the narrative is controlled by their killers.

This is the central question at the heart of true crime, and perhaps the question at the center of mystery entertainment as a whole: Is it ethical to commercialize human death? 

I do find mystery fiction less reprehensible. I can acknowledge bias in this answer– I’ve grown up around mystery stories– yet I do find there to be less ethical issues with the purely fictional.

In mystery novels, the characters and incidents are fictional. Yes there are mysteries based off of real-life events, yet there are limits to this. There’s no one interrogating the victim’s families after their death, or people speculating on the lives of real people. There’s no glorification of the killer because mysteries promise justice to be served. Even when justice is black and white, mysteries promise there audience that the morally right thing has been done– or they posit the audience with a question surrounding moral goodness.

So no, I don’t think “In Cold Blood” is a malicious attempt to justify the crimes of the killers. And no, I don’t think “in Cold Blood” is intentionally insensitive– or insensitive at all– to its subjects. However, I do think that in the telling and writing and recounting of these stories, there’s a moral responsibility to consider how the story impacts those near the crime, or how we choose to tell these stories. 

Who do we give priority? Who are we giving infamy? Who has a voice to speak with? Who is controlling the narrative? Who is being forgotten?

And the question that I come back too the most: Why tell these stories?


6/10 was well written but I will not read again

Further Breakdown:

Writing Quality: 8/10            Enjoyability: N/A

Pace: N/A                             Visual elements: N/A

Plot development: N/A         Insightfulness: N/A

Characters: N/A