Of Murder in Non-Fiction

There are two types of readers of murder: one who read fiction and non-fiction and know what they’re reading. The other is those who read non-fiction and complain it’s not as good as fiction.

I don’t care about the latter, but I don’t see how they don’t see the difference between the two genres. For instance, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is non-fiction, and it doesn’t read like fiction. For the adrenaline junkie, it’s no page-turner. For readers who expect an Agatha-Christie like unravelling, non-fiction murders are a bore.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Just a few weeks ago, a close friend recommended In Cold Blood to me. She enjoyed it said I too would. Well, since she knows me and my preferences, I decided to heed her suggestion. However, when I asked around to borrow the book, one voracious reader told me not to waste my time over In Cold Blood. It’s a slow and dull read, she offered.

I was surprised to hear such conflicting views from two well-read people. I read the book nevertheless. That’s when I realised the true difference between murder-fiction and murder-non-fiction.

For one, the intended audience in non-fiction is not the same as in fiction. While almost any reader can appreciate the thrill of chasing an evasive fictitious serial killer, not everyone can understand the subtleties of outlining an actual murderer’s mind. Truman Capote, in the book, isn’t addressing the impatient ones who want to finish the book and lable it “Read” on Goodreads. He, instead, addresses those curious to know the way the mind works. The author speaks of Dick and Perry’s childhood, of Perry’s troubled family and abusive upbringing, of his dreaming of a giant bird, and of his attitude towards his partner in crime. None of these details matter in fiction because no one would care. In non-fiction, however, knowing Perry’s reluctance to swimming because he’s embarrassed by the way his legs appear, makes him relatable—it makes him human. And that’s the kind of depth that no fiction goes into. For someone looking for short bursts of exciting crime, a non-fiction like In Cold Blood is just plain boring.

This is my first non-fiction murder novel. And so it struck me how different the author’s tone is than in fiction. Capote doesn’t try to lure the reader with mysterious adjectives and goosebumps-inducing alleyways. Instead, he sticks to the facts—the cold facts that chill the bone one page at a time. For instance, there’s no element of surprise in In Cold Blood. I had gone less than fifty pages into the book, and I knew the killers, their appearance, and their uncanny ability to smile as they killed—so to speak. That’s how non-fiction works; the author has little to nothing to fold in a heart-stopping moment into the plot. The whole world knew the victims, the killers, and the history of the investigation—even before Capote began writing the book. It’s no surprise that there’s no surprise in the story. Nevertheless, the book reads like a true work of art. The crime was slick, chilling, and brutal. And Capote does nothing to make it sound any less.

Come to think of it, when reading a non-fiction murder story like In Cold Blood, a reader shouldn’t expect anything. The purpose of non-fiction is in itself different from fiction. While fiction has a perfect beginning, a crescendo, a plot twist, and the climax, non-fiction serves a larger purpose: understanding. Non-fiction readers don’t look for the climax, because the book opens with it. Instead, they look to look into the lives of the murderers, the routines of the victims, what they ate the day they were killed, who Nancy helped bake a cake, which part she played in the school play, how much she loved riding the horse with her friend. The non-fiction reader looks for life in murder. They find reality in hostility, and they seek to read the killers’ intentions. Because non-fiction murder isn’t just revenge, it’s the result of an entire lifetime of bottled emotions—boiling down to a moment of unsteadiness. And that’s what a reader hopes to discover.

It’s not just the reader, though. Even the author of non-fiction murder has a purpose that varies from fiction. Writing about murders takes more than time and patience. It’s takes more than writing itself. Capote would’ve spent a lot of time researching the facts, but he also would’ve spent years trying to uncover the mystery of human psychology. I can imagine how it must be for a writer to flip through gruesome photos and statistics. The purpose, again, isn’t to write the most spine-tingling novel. It’s more than that—it’s to bring to life, and show the world, the soul of a human who happened to take a wrong path.

I enjoyed every bit of In Cold Blood. If you haven’t read it already, you should. Be warned, though: if you’re the fiction lover who is reluctant to spend time (even as long as a month) on a single book, then don’t bother. But this is one wonderful book. Capote’s sharp writing would drive through your chest, and you’ll yearn to know more about the men—who could well be your neighbours—who also murdered a family in cold blood.

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