On November 16, 1959, The New York Times published an account of the murders, which began:
Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15  (UPI) -- A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged ... There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut. —The New York Times
This 300-word article interested Capote enough for him to investigate the murders. Capote brought his childhood friend Harper Lee (who would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird) to help gain the confidence of the locals in Kansas. Capote did copious research for the book, ultimately compiling 8,000 pages of notes. After the criminals were found, tried, and convicted, Capote conducted personal interviews with both Smith and Hickock. Smith especially fascinated Capote; in the book he is portrayed as the more sensitive and guilt-ridden of the two killers. Rumors of a relationship between Smith and Capote still linger to this day. The book was not completed until after Smith and Hickock were executed.
An alternate explanation for Capote's interest holds that The New Yorker presented the Clutter story to him as one of two choices for a story, the other being to follow a Manhattan cleaning woman on her rounds. Capote supposedly chose the Clutter story, believing it would be the easier assignment. Capote later did write a piece about following a cleaning woman, which he entitled "A Day's Work" and included in his book Music for Chameleons.
Veracity of In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood brought Capote much praise from the literary community, but despite the book's billing as a factual account, critics have questioned its veracity, arguing that Capote changed facts to suit the story, added scenes that had never occurred, and re-created dialogue. Writing in Esquire in 1966, Phillip K. Tompkins noted factual discrepancies after he traveled to Kansas and talked to some of the same people interviewed by Capote. In a telephone interview with Tompkins, Mrs. Meier denied that she heard Perry cry and that she held his hand as described by Capote. In Cold Blood indicates that Meier and Perry became close, yet she told Tompkins she spent little time with Perry and did not talk much with him. Tompkins concluded:
- Capote has, in short, achieved a work of art. He has told exceedingly well a tale of high terror in his own way. But, despite the brilliance of his self-publicizing efforts, he has made both a tactical and a moral error that will hurt him in the short run. By insisting that “every word” of his book is true he has made himself vulnerable to those readers who are prepared to examine seriously such a sweeping claim.
True crime writer Jack Olsen also commented on the alleged fabrications:
- "I recognized it as a work of art, but I know fakery when I see it," Olsen says. "Capote completely fabricated quotes and whole scenes... The book made something like $6 million in 1960s money, and nobody wanted to discuss anything wrong with a moneymaker like that in the publishing business." Nobody except Olsen and a few others. His criticisms were quoted in Esquire, to which Capote replied, "Jack Olsen is just jealous."
- "That was true, of course," Olsen says, "I was jealous—all that money? I'd been assigned the Clutter case by Harper & Row until we found out that Capote and his cousin [sic], Harper Lee, had been already on the case in Dodge City for six months." Olsen explains, "That book did two things. It made true crime an interesting, successful, commercial genre, but it also began the process of tearing it down. I blew the whistle in my own weak way. I'd only published a couple of books at that time—but since it was such a superbly written book, nobody wanted to hear about it."
Alvin Dewey, Jr., the investigator portrayed in In Cold Blood, later said that the last scene, in which he visits the Clutter's graves, was Capote's invention, while other Kansas residents whom Capote interviewed have claimed they or their relatives were mischaracterized or misquoted. Dewey said that the rest of the book was factually accurate. However, new evidence indicates that the book is not as “immaculately factual” as Capote had always claimed it to be. The book depicts Dewey as being the brilliant investigator who cracks the Clutter murder case, but files recovered from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation show that when an informant, Floyd Wells, came forward naming Richard Hickock and Perry Smith as likely suspects, Dewey did not immediately act on the information, as the book portrays his doing, because Dewey still held to his belief that the murders were committed by locals who "had a grudge against Herb Clutter".