In Cold Blood, the 1965 bestseller about the murder of the Clutter family and the men who killed them, was labelled a 'nonfiction novel' by its author, Truman Capote. Not a documentary novel and not an historical novel but something new, he felt. It was nonfiction because the author was willing to be held responsible for the content as being factual. It was a novel because he used, like other art forms, evocative scenes, dramatic developments, slightly askew chronology, and a reliance on psychological suspense.
This brushes against Daniel Defoe's Robinson Caruso; Defoe was a fact-checking journalist and popular biography author when he took headline news and elaborated and fictionalized the facts. Interviews, with the interviewer editing himself of the final draft, is a style that worked for Oscar Lewis in The Children of Sanchez and William Faulkner in As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. After Stephen Crane filed a report to his newspaper editor regarding the sinking of a Cuban gunrunner, he used the facts to generate his short much anthologized story The Open Boat. At times the conventions of journalism are left behind to get at the meaning of the experience.
On the other hand John Hersey's WWII novel, The Wall, is a composition of imagined diaries, journals, notebooks and documents from the inhabitants of Warsaw , and its Jewish Ghetto within the Polish city in order to evoke realism. Hersey, in chosing the August 1945 detonation of an atomic bomb, did not fictionalize the event but used techniques used in fiction writing. Hiroshima uses the voice of each sufferer and entwines it into a single point of view.
Journalism's instincts are to inform and and discuss. Capote infuses into journalism sociological and psychological methods of discovery. Capote exploits the novelistic technique of cross-cutting between the Clutter home and the road trip of the murderers. The two stories are independent until their car is parked in the Clutter driveway; the Clutters know nothing of the strangers and the strangers know nothing of the Clutters except what one other convict has told one of the strangers.
The method of discovery and investigation of the crime is both subtle, church goers stop by the crime scene, and volcanic, the community erupts in fear and suspicion.
One precursor to Capote's 1965 In Cold Blood is J.B. Martin's true crime writing set in Chicago and published in the 1950s. Martin worked in the Police Gazette journalistic environment of the 1940s and 1950s and wrote true crime stories with sociological and psychological insights to the murderers, victims and their communities.
Was Capote the first to write a nonfiction novel? Probably not. Was he the first to claim his writing was uniquely a non-fiction novel? Probably so. He was a thoughful literary marketer with the writing talent to back up his claims. In Cold Blood is a masterful work of description, characterization, suspense, psychology, sociology, pacing and plot/scene development.
CWL recommends the book on audio compact disk from Blackstone Audio and in trade paperback. Having the book read to the listener gives an intimacy to the evocative language of which Capote is a master. The print version will allow the reader to return to the brillant scenes. Also, the film Capote is quite good and provides a visual description of the Clutter farmhouse and the murder, which as an event is places near the very end of the non-fiction novel.
Truman Capote's publications:
Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948, novel)
A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949, short stories)
Local Color (1950, articles)
The Grass Harp (1951, novel)
The Muses Are Heard (1956, articles)
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958, novel)
Selected Writings (1963, articles)
A Christmas Memory (1966, short stories)
In Cold Blood (1966, novel)
The Thanksgiving Visitor (1968, novel)
The Dogs Bark (1973, articles)
Music for Chameleons (1981, articles)
Source: The Non-Fiction Novel, Wiliiam Weigand, New Mexico Quarterly, Autumn 1967, 37:243-257 and www.nndb.com/people/841/000024769/