For your banned book club: In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for legal authority and sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes and themes, including violence and murder.  Some of us thought the 1967 film version and the 2005 Capote film about the writing of In Cold Blood were as good as this book.

I like to talk on TV about those things that aren’t worth writing about.

Truman Capote

Who is this Truman Capote?

  • American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, playwright, scriptwriter and celebrity.
  • Born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans,1924; died in Los Angeles, 1984.
  • Spent most of youth in US south in care of relatives.
  • Child Capote was basis of Harper Lee’s character Dill in To Kill a Mocking Bird.
  • Father was small-time con-man.
  • Initially wrote dark, mystical fiction but later shifted toward nonfiction.
  • Professional reputation established in 1966 with In Cold Blood, nonfiction novel about real-life brutal murder of Kansas family, the Clutters.
  • Innovative writing style (New Journalism) in groundbreaking In Cold Blood combines literature’s creative license and journalism’s reliance on fact.
  • In Cold Blood first commercially released film in US to use the word “shit”.
  • Film nominated for four Academy Awards in 1967.
  • Recent film, Capote, nominated for 5 Oscars, revolves around author’s research and writing of In Cold Blood.
  • Also wrote novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, from which Deep Blue Something borrows its same-named song title and refrain.

What do you think about In Cold Blood?

  1. What is the effect of reading the characters’ point of view, rather than an omniscient narrator’s interpretation?
  2. Capote wrote of Smith:  “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house.  One day, I went out the front door and he went out the back.”  How do you think the many personal similarities between Capote and Smith influence Capote’s interpretation of the murders?  Why does life turn out so differently for two people with so much in common?
  3. Does Smith’s painful life story explain his criminal behavior?  Does it excuse it?  Should it influence his punishment?
  4. The citizens of Holcomb, Kansas want to believe the killers are outsiders.  Why?
  5. Why is the imagery of the road so common in American books, movies, songs?  Can you think of other stories where it plays as big a role as it does here?  What about Fear and Loathing?
  6. What did the citizens of Kansas gain with Smith and Hickock’s execution?  What did they lose?
  7. What do you think about the Moral Penal Code, which states that a defendant is legally insane if he or she does not have the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong?
  8. How is this crime story like modern crime novels like Silence of the Lambs?  Or tv shows like CSI? How is it different?
  9. Diana Trilling wrote:  “An unpleasant critical charge leveled against In Cold Blood is that it is itself written in cold blood, exploiting tragedy for personal gain.” Do you agree?  Is an author’s use of real people and their stories as material morally justifiable?  How does this question apply outside the book?
  10. Like the book, the film of In Cold Blood generated controversy for its violence (in spite of the fact that the killings in the film occur outside the picture frame), its sympathy for the murderers, and its anti-capital-punishment stance. What do you make of these complaints and challenges?

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