Should it really come as a shock that recent news about a cache of secret law enforcement documents on the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in western Kansas further undermines the credibility of Truman Capote's groundbreaking book "In Cold Blood"?
Capote always maintained that "In Cold Blood" (1966) was "immaculately factual" -- that with it he had created, in effect, the "nonfiction-novel" genre, a true story told using the structure and prose style of fiction. Capote told the New York Times in 1965 that he had set out to "synthesize fiction techniques with journalism." His results have long been cited as a first, coming ahead of Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and others.
But holes have been evident in Capote's reporting for years, along with questions about his death-row love affair with the book's key subject, the killer Perry Smith. The famed author "didn't tell the truth," Kansas Bureau of Investigation Detective Harold Nye told George Plimpton for Plimpton's 1997 biography, "Truman Capote."
Now, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, an entire scene from "In Cold Blood" is sharply contradicted by police reports. That passage appears to be pure fabrication. When a prison inmate came forward to claim that he gave Smith and his partner Dick Hickock information that farmer Herb Clutter kept his office safe loaded with cash, detectives didn't leap immediately into action, as Capote asserted.
Nye did not, as Capote wrote,
But according to Capote's book, Dewey immediately dispatched Nye to check out the tip. Capote wrote that Dewey took home files on Smith and Hickock that same night and told his wife he had "a hunch" the case would soon break.
Could Capote have gotten so much wrong? Or did he have a deal, implicit or otherwise, with Dewey?
Capote, after all, received unfettered access to people and documents, even to young Nancy Clutter's schoolgirl diary, nearly all of it arranged by Dewey. Dewey comes off in the book as a relentless investigator, his every instinct spot-on. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Dewey's wife was paid $10,000 to consult on the movie version of "In Cold Blood," apparently bringing whatever deal existed full circle. Dewey got a stellar image, cash and a famous friend. Capote got deeply inside the case.
But if Capote fabricated the scene at the Hickock farm, what else did he fabricate? How accurate is the information attributed largely to Smith from death-row interviews? Once Smith fell through the gallows in 1965, little could have stopped Capote from bending or inventing facts to fit his narrative.
I love "In Cold Blood." I have taught it in writing workshops as a prime example of the nonfiction-novel genre. When I'd hit a rough spot while writing my 2012 book, "Killing the Messenger," I'd go back to Capote and find solutions that purged my writer's block. But the documents that have recently come to light push "In Cold Blood" over the tipping point. Capote, the writer of verdant prose, no longer can be trusted as a reliable, factual narrator.
The latest revelations are not insignificant. While ushering in the nonfiction novel, Capote made a deal, not just with Dewey, but with readers: This is true, he said. My art is not fictive -- it's literature, brought to higher form by applying fiction techniques to facts.
The nonfiction novel remains a tricky category. One of the genre's giants, Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes, of Half Moon Bay, prefers to use the word "verity" from the Latin "veritas," meaning truth. "Sculpture isn't 'nonpainting.' The oboe isn't a 'nonviolin,' " Rhodes points out on his website and often in his lectures.
When I heard Rhodes speak last year at a literary conference in Texas, he recalled some criticism he'd received on the opening paragraph of his brilliant 1987 tome "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," in which physicist Leó Szilárd has a revelation about a nuclear chain reaction while crossing a London street in 1933.
How could Rhodes know what Szilárd, who died in 1964, was thinking, a critic pondered.
Because, Rhodes roared, he had asked questions, done research, read documents, talked to people who had worked with Szilárd. Rhodes kept his soaring prose anchored deeply in fact, not a writer's expedient imagination.
Of course, Capote isn't here to defend himself as Rhodes so ably did. (Capote's research assistant, Harper Lee, isn't talking, either.) One wonders, though, given the new revelations, whether Capote could actually muster a defense.
Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter for this newspaper, is the author of "Killing the Messenger," published last year by the Random House imprint Crown. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/Thomas_peele.