Murder into Art

There are almost as many bad true-crime books as there are crimes. What makes them so hard to do?

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith for TIME

In 1959 Truman Capote spotted a short item in the New York Times. It described a quadruple murder in small-town Kansas: two men entered a farmhouse, shot the parents and two children and left with $40, a radio and a pair of binoculars. Capote lit out for Kansas, interviewed everyone he could get his well-manicured hands on and seven years later published a book about it. In Cold Blood combined journalism with the literary liberties of fiction to create what Capote called a "nonfiction novel," about two antiheroes and the thwarted dreams that made them killers. He believed he had discovered...