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It was a typically suffocating day on the job. There had been a murder, one of those white-trash, ten-drinks-too-many affairs where a drunken leer at somebody else's date leads to a steak knife through a thigh artery. This was the kind of dispiriting turn that made my bleak days as a crime reporter even bleaker. The initial morbid rush of the job had long worn off and I was fully jaded by how easily tragedy could be boxed into a few paragraphs of clichs.
That night, by chance, I pulled Truman Capote's In Cold Blood from my bookshelf. A friend had insisted it was essential reading and left it for me. For the first time since I was a boy, I couldn't fall asleep because I was so excited by a book.
In Cold Blood tells the true story of the slaughter of a family on a Kansas farm in 1959. The book is famous for being the first 'non-fiction novel' " a term Capote invented. Today, narrative non- fiction is a celebrated genre but when In Cold Blood was published in 1966, the idea that a true story could be woven with the delicacy and depth of fiction was radical. The Irish writer Ulick O'Connor recently told me that it was the most important work of its era, because it broke ground for all the non-fiction that has come since.
Born in New Orleans in 1924 and raised in Alabama, Capote was a fiction writer first. His work is musked with his sense of social isolation; he never really fitted in the South. A favourite story involves the time he visited the neighbourhood witch doctor and paid a quarter to be changed into a little girl.
Capote eventually moved north and began to write as a teenager. His short stories earned him recognition in Manhattan circles, but it was his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's that brought wider acclaim. By November 1959, when he saw an article about the Kansas murders, he had carte blanche at The New Yorker. What was supposed to be a magazine article became his literary legacy.
Capote was what all journalists need to be: a great extractor. Of information, of secrets, of favours. This, combined with his elegance with words, turned atrocious murders into beautiful prose. What touched me when I first read that book was how Capote conveyed the humanity and complexity of the killers. His obsessive interviewing allowed him to create devastatingly intimate psychological portraits.
There can be no greater inspiration for a young journalist. Immerse yourself completely in your subject; then choose every word as carefully as you choose your spouse. In Cold Blood was the motivation for my first true crime books and it is the reason why I keep trying to write beautiful true stories today.
Jeremy Mercer's 'Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
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