In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Posted Aug 1, 2013 3:47 AM CST
By Michelle Zierler
This is an online extra to our August 2013 cover story, 25 greatest law novels ever.
In Cold Blood tells of the November 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan. It’s not a work of fiction, and so arguably shouldn’t even be a contender for best legal novel. Author Truman Capote billed his work as a “nonfiction novel,” meaning that he used creative techniques of fiction—scene, character, dialogue—to tell a true story.
Well, mostly true. The careful reader doesn’t need a 2011 expose of The New Yorker’s rather skimpy fact-checking (the book originally ran in parts in Wallace Shawn’s magazine) to be alerted to the liberties Capote took with the facts. For instance, in one early scene, we’re privy to a tone-setting conversation among some of the soon-to-be butchered Clutters. None of them survived, and nobody else was present. How can any reader expect, then, that the dialogue in the book is 100 percent accurate?
Today, we demand more factual integrity from works of nonfiction—as we should. Some of my favorite books about the law (A Civil Action, Storming the Court, The Informant) built on Capote’s blueprint for writing nonfiction while improving on his spotty fealty to facts.
Unlike any other work on this year’s ABA Journal best-of list, In Cold Blood was constricted by actual names, places, people and events. No, it doesn’t really belong on this list at all. But for sheer power and beauty, for being the first long-form work to venture into the world of journalism, and for telling a true story in a way that grips the reader with all the force of fiction, In Cold Blood gets my vote. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
Michelle Zierler’s legal career has included stints at Miramax Films, Canal+ (in Paris) and Playboy Entertainment. A graduate of New York University’s law school, she is the director of program in Law and Journalism and professor of legal writing at New York Law School and an avid patron of the arts.