From: Recognizing the Art of Nonfiction Literary Excellence in True Crime, World Literature Today, 2012.
The Everest of true crime writing is Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966). It was the primary reason that nonfiction was allowed to compete for the Hammett literary award. The brilliance of its portrayal of murderers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock is still stunning. Despite the monstrous brutality of the murder of the Clutter family, the insights into the character of the killers allow a reader to understand them as deeply damaged human beings, creating the profoundly unsettling feeling that real crime elicits. The Clutters are slaughtered for no reason. The long process of hunting down the killers, convicting, and hanging them cannot undo the crime and provides little comfort. Fiction usually achieves a feeling of resolution. It is what allows most readers to enjoy a good crime novel despite the often-hideous violence and cruelty at its core. Hanging a man is a cruel thing to do, even if what he did to deserve it is even crueler. No book has ever captured these disturbing feelings as well as 'In Cold Blood'. Purists accuse Capote of taking liberties with some of the facts, but few readers do more than shrug at this. An absolute adherence to the truth is the hobgoblin of writers who are either unaware of how they inevitably reshape the facts or who cannot see the story for the trees. Though we expect a true crime writer to be fairly accurate, we also expect the writer to select, shape, and interpret the material so that it gives us what we expect from a good book. No book, no matter how attentive to accuracy, can replicate the peculiar details, odd coincidences, and utter disrespect for what satisfies us that is our world. There is a raggedy-ness on the edges of reality that has to be straightened to make an effective story.