In 1959, the following article appeared in the New York Times:
Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15  (UPI) -- A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged ... There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.
It piqued the interest of Truman Capote, who set off to Kansas to investigate the murders along with his childhood friend Harper Lee. After extensive interviews, and eight thousand pages worth of notes he wrote In Cold Blood.
Widely considered to be the first of its type, In Cold Blood looks mainly at the relationship between the two killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, but also tells of the Cutter family, and the effect that their murder had on the town of Holcomb. Capote spent six years working on the book, from before a suspect was found right through to the hanging of Smith and Hickcock.
I'd never read any of Truman Capote's work up until now, but I have read the biography Capote written by Gerald Clarke (on which the movie with Phillip Seymour Hoffman is largely based), so I knew a little bit about the book. Whether it is the first 'non fiction novel' or not, it's still a pretty amazing piece of journalism - a book like Underbelly owes a pretty big debt to this book I think.
I read somewhere that some people criticised the book for humanising the killers, especially Perry Smith, to the point where people accused Capote of having an affair with Smith while he was on death row. I guess in a way its true, in that Smith seemed much more sympathetic than Hickcox, but by the end of the book I just about felt sorry for everyone. I liked the idea of Capote taking Harper Lee with him down to Holcomb to gain the trust of the locals. I can imagine how he must have gone over down at the local cafe.
Anyway, I definitely recommend In Cold Blood, especially if you have an interest in investigative journalism. Even if you don't though, it's well worth the read.