The Narrator’s Perspective in True Crime Books

In Cold Blood, All the President’s Men and Midnight in the Garden of Good of Evil all deal with real-life crimes. Each of the authors takes a different approach to point of view, depending upon their unique relationships to the setting in which the books take place. All three books, furthermore, combine certain elements of journalism and of the novel to create works that move beyond mere crime reporting to bring characters to life. In 1959, the Clutter family was murdered in the small Kansas town of Holcomb. Soon thereafter, Truman Capote arrived to do research into the case for an article. Six years later, however, what Truman Capote produced was a revolutionary new book titled In Cold Blood. Capote’s intention was to create a new literary genre that told a true story, but read like a novel. Thus, In Cold Blood reconstructs the gruesome murders of several members of the Clutter family, written more like a novel of realism than an example of a journalistic book like All the President’s Men. Both books, however, deal primarily with a case of real murder. Yet Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil differs substantially from the other two works, making a murder simply the central tile in a much larger mosaic. Furthermore, much of the interest in Midnight is centred around place, not plot. Indeed, one might well suggest that the most important character in the book is not Jim Williams, but rather the city of Savannah, the description of which-“this is a town where gentlemen own their own white tie and tails”-is meant as a tribute to the distinctiveness of its citizens. The setting of In Cold Blood also is important, but the small Kansas town of Holcomb is portrayed as if it had not changed since the Depression. Where Berendt makes Savannah seem as peculiar as its residents, Capote is much more sentimental, using such imagery as “the well-loved piece of prairie where he had always hoped to build a house.” Contrasting with both of these depictions of setting is Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington, DC. As with the rest of the narrative style of this book, the nation’s power center is presented straightforwardly, but with a sinister overtone: The shadows of its tall monuments and gleaming federal structures seem to contain unknown depths of suspicious activity. Thus, the cities in which the crimes that these three books take place are important, to varying degrees, in determining the attitude of the authors. Each locale differs from one another in time and place. Capote’s small Kansas farm town is almost the model of a taciturn community where nobody goes out of their way to appear unique; as a result Capote writes in a bare, stripped-down style. Berendt’s Savannah is the exact opposite, a city that revels in its offbeat people, and his narrative, too, reflects that wide-open style. Meanwhile, Washington, D.C. is a city notorious for presenting a front that suggests strength and dependability, yet that hides colorful corruption taking place. Again, the author’s style reflects that theme. Thus, the time and locale of these books are important elements in determining how the narrators write their stories. Equally important, however, is the relationship of the authors to those settings. For instance, on the surface, Truman Capote appears to be one of the unlikeliest authors of the period to psychologically penetrate the minds of both the victims and killers in an isolated Midwest town. Capote was already famous not just for his writing, but for his flamboyantly homosexual lifestyle. He could not have been more removed from the humble townsfolk of Holcomb, or the sociopathic alienation of the killers. Before he became famous, however, Capote lived in a tiny southern hamlet that likely shared much in common with Holcomb; his connection doubtless gave him insight. Indeed, of the authors who wrote these three books, it is likely that Capote had the most ease in translating his vision to the general populace. Thus, Capote is quite successful in using small details that many readers could recognize in their own hometowns, such as his description of the abandoned building where the “Dance” sign no longer lit up. The simplicity of his description is also an indication of Capote’s empathy for his characters. The Clutter family is presented as a mid-century American ideal, almost like something out of a sitcom. Capote paints Mr. Clutter, for example, as both a determined farmer and a respected citizen. His daughter comes across as the living embodiment of one of those characters by played Sandra Dee or Annette Funicello: “a straight-A student, the president of her class, a leader in the 4-H program and the Young Methodists League, a skilled rider, an excellent musician (piano, clarinet), an annual winner at the county fair (pastry, preserves, needlework, flower arrangement)…” (18). Only the fact that these people will be brutally murdered separates them from a thousand other families. While Truman Capote came to Kansas from a small southern town by way of New York, John Berendt arrived in one of the iconic cities of old world southern gentility as nothing less than the traditional enemy: a Yankee from New York. Not only did he hail from New York, but he wrote for a magazine called the New Yorker. Nevertheless, he may have been fortunate in choosing Savannah as his southern city of choice: “We’re famously hospitable, in fact, even by Southern standards. Savannah’s called the ‘Hostess City of the South,’ you know.” Nevertheless, it is specifically Berendt’s status as an outsider that lends his book strength. Berendt’s fame and charm gets him access to such Savannah staples as the Married Women’s Club, the Black Debutantes’ Ball, and Williams’ legendary Christmas party. Berendt’s mission differs substantially from both Capote’s and Woodward and Bernstein’s. The focus of those two books is the crime itself; how and why it happened in the former and learning exactly what happened in the latter. Berendt, in contrast, spends a considerable amount of time giving the reader a sense of place before the murder even occurs. The goal seems to be to introduce the elements that could conceivably lead to such a crime and the tortuous route to justice that follows. The suspected murderer in the book is himself something of a charming outsider, and it is possible that Berendt identifies most closely with Williams. Berendt clearly enjoys his cast of oddball characters, and the intent of the structure seems to be to create the feeling that in Savannah society, a scandal of this type is bound to happen. Thus, the book stands alongside All the President’s Men, but in stark contrast to In Cold Blood, in terms of how the setting might inform–and even create–the crime. Where Woodward and Bernstein differ from Berendt is in their attitudes toward the characters in their book, although the attitude is shaped by their relationship to the city. The attitude is also reflected in the surprising point of view that the two authors use. Each of these examinations into a crime are written using a different perspective. Capote attempts to impose omniscience into his narrative, describing not just the events, but also the thoughts of his characters. Berendt uses first-person narration, thus becoming another character in the vast panorama that is Savannah. Yet the most unique choice was made by Woodward and Bernstein. Since the two investigative reporters are the main characters it might have been expected they would use the first-person, perhaps with Woodward writing one chapter and Bernstein the next. Instead, they treat their book in the same way they wrote their newspaper articles. Although disconcerting at first to read the authors of the book referring to themselves in the third person and detached from analytic insight, eventually the purpose becomes clear. Writing in the third person better approximates journalistic objectivity and integrity. The reader is better able to make his own decisions about the techniques and tricks that reporters must use to get their story. The writing style is matter-of-fact and lends an authoritative weight that could be damaged by intrusions of the character’ opinions. In addition, by distancing themselves from their own characters, Woodward and Bernstein transform into players within the larger drama rather than just reporting on it. This is important because the attitude that they take toward the people they are writing about is left entirely to the reader, including the attitude they have about themselves. All the President’s Men ultimately is not a book about politics, therefore, but a book about journalism. As the two recent movies on the subject indicate, Truman Capote also could have injected himself into his narrative and turned In Cold Blood into more closely approximating the Watergate book. Equally true is that Woodward and Bernstein could have written their book using Capote’s by utilizing all the copious notes they collected to attempt to get inside the head of those involved in the Watergate scandal. Instead, wisely, they chose the journalistic approach that reports only what can be verified. The result is that of the three books, All the President’s Men is the one that invests the reader with the most responsibility for figuring out where the two authors stand. Ultimately, any analysis of the narrator’s attitude in a book about crime comes down to how the author feels about the criminal and each of these books take different routes. Clearly, the criminal in a book about crime, especially if he is convicted and proven guilty, will not come across as well as his victims. It is also true, however, that the criminal tends to be presented with more complexity than the victims. This could be due in part, when murder is involved, to the fact that the writer often does not have access into the mind of the victim. It is this very element that makes In Cold Blood the most controversial of the three books. There is no question that Capote utilized dramatic license in presenting the thoughts of the murderers. It may be easier to sympathize with them than it might have otherwise. It is quite obvious that Capote does not judge the two killers as harshly as one might expect. Whether or not one can say he actually likes them or not may be difficult, but there is certainly an attempt being made to present them as human beings instead of bloodthirsty animals. Although many readers may be repelled by this idea, it does serve the purpose of pointing out that killing them in effect renders the state somewhat inhumane. Berendt takes an approach that is both different, and similar, to Capote’s. Berendt’s suspect is not an uneducated, lower-class drifter who committed multiple murders in cold blood, and that Joe Williams is a charming rich man makes all the difference. Whether or not Williams really did commit murder or not does not matter; fewer readers are likely to be repulsed that he is presented as a three-dimensional human being, than if they read Capote’s portrayal of his murderers. Money makes a difference, and that is a subtext Berendt’s books. For example, the expectation among many in Savannah was that Williams would get off simply because he had the money to do so. Yet precious few people thought Capote’s murderous duo would not hang. Woodward and Bernstein differ from both Capote and Berendt. Although they too get to know the participants personally and interact with them, they always manage to keep their objective distance. Whether describing the victims of Watergate or the known perpetrators, the two reporters insistently refrain from shaping the reader’s opinions by introducing their own. In many ways, this makes All the President’s Men the most effective of the books for the reader when it comes to shaping one’s own attitude toward the participants. Thus, In Cold Blood, All the President’s Men and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil each undertake to describe the events surrounding a crime. Each book presents a different point of view that reflects how the time and place and events are impressed upon the author. In addition, the books stand as starkly different examples of how to treat the people who are involved in real life events. None of these books read like dry police reports, and although Capote’s is the only one that fashions itself as a nonfiction novel, in reality, all three books possess the narrative drive and characterization that make a novel so interesting.