“In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote is a non-fiction novel published in 1966. The book is considered by some authors to be the first “True Crime” novel of it’s kind ever written. Though originally lauded for it’s research and prose, the novel has since received some criticism including those that say that Capote invented some of the crucial scenes for dramatic purposes.
The subject of the novel is the killings of the Clutter family that took place in Holcomb, Kansas in November of 1959. After hearing about the case, Capote traveled to Holcomb before the killers were found to research the family and the case. What followed was a narrative of the time line of the events of the case written in an artistic style of prose that creates more of a novel feel.
The book is based on interviews that Capote shared with much of the town as well as the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith after they were found and captured.
The Last To See Them Alive
The book begins on the last day that the Clutter family lived to see. The family, headed by the patriarch, Herbert Clutter, lived on a farm called River Valley in a small town called Holcomb in the flat plains of Kansas. On Herbert’s last confirmed day alive, November 14th, 1959, he wakes early, eats breakfast and begins his daily farm chores.
A phone call comes in and wakes his teenage daughter, Nancy. A friend of hers has called to ask if Nancy will teach her to make a cherry pie. Nancy agrees to have her over that evening to help and rearranges some things in her schedule to make time. Nancy’s friend, Susan then calls and the two talk about Nancy’s date with a boy named Bobby the night before and how her father has talked to her about slowing down the nature of her relationship with Bobby. She also mentions that she believes that her father is worried about something but she does not know what.
Across the state, a man named Perry Smith has only aspirin and cigarettes for breakfast. His friend and former cellmate from prison, Dick Hickock comes to pick him up. Dick drives a black Cadillac, and the two prepare for a long drive.
Back in Holcomb, Nancy teaches her friend, Jolene Katz, how to make a cherry pie and then leaves shortly after. Bonnie, Herbert’s wife, and Nancy’s mother speaks with Jolene for a while after and shows the girl her collection of miniatures. After Jolene leaves, she goes home and to bed.
Perry and Dick prepare for their drive and get cleaned up. Dick is small and athletic. Perry has a very muscular upper body, but his legs were injured in a motorcycle accident years earlier.
Back in Holcomb, the Clutters go about their everyday, idyllic, wholesome business as, unbeknownst to them, their killers drive toward their home. Capote narrates this section in an almost cinematic fashion, switching back and forth between the preparations of Dick and Perry and the wholesome lives of the Clutter family to heighten the suspense of the reader. Capote also narrates from a cosmopolitan perspective, creating a detached point of view to small town farm life.
While driving across the country, Dick and Perry stop to buy rope and rubber gloves. Perry considers buying stockings to wear over their heads, but Dick reminds him that they aren’t going to leave any surviving witnesses.
In Holcomb, Kenyon Clutter, Herbert’s teenage son, works on a hope chest for his older sister. Kenyon is interested in building things and working on cars. Kenyon works in the basement recreational room and shortly goes outside to speak to the husband of the housekeeper, Mr. Helms. Mr. Helms note that an insurance salesman is speaking to Herbert.
Dick and Perry decide to get stockings after all but must stop at a convent to get black ones. Perry recalls that the reason he violated his parole to come to Kansas. He wished to meet up with Willie-Jay, a former cellmate who was something of a religious mentor to him during his time in prison. While he was looking for Willie-Jay, he found Dick instead and agreed to do a job with him.
Back in Holcomb, Herbert makes a large deal for a life insurance policy and the agent leaves, satisfied. That night, Nancy’s boyfriend, Bobby comes over and has dinner with the family. He then watched TV with them for a while before leaving at 11 p.m.
Dick and Perry stop to have dinner and buy a tank of gas. Perry stops in the bathroom, and his legs begin giving him pain, and he spends a long time in the bathroom. Dick begins to wonder if his partner is considering backing out. But he does not, and the two make it to Holcomb that night.
Capote then cuts to the next morning, when Nancy’s friend who is also named Nancy, comes early for a visit. When she knocks on the door to the Clutter farm, however, no one answers and she goes to ask the housekeeper if anyone is home. The housekeeper, who knows the Clutters to be home, goes back to the farm with Nancy Ewalt to investigate. Together they go into the house and find the bodies of the family scattered around.
That morning the news begins to travel around the town and shake the foundations of the small, peaceful town. The postmistress, Sadie Truitt, sees ambulances racing up to the Clutter farm and she discusses the situation with her daughter, another postmistress named Myrtle. People begin to meet in town at Hartman’s Cafe to discuss the murders and the realization hits that the killer is probably someone they know. Susan and Bobby Rupp hear the news and are devastated.
Perry and Dick have fled the town, and Perry sleeps in a hotel while Dick has dinner with his parents and family over the border into Oklahoma. He tells them that he visited Perry’s sister in Fort Scott and that was the reason for his journey.
A group of Herbert Clutter’s friends and hunting partners go to his farm to clean up as they consider it their “Christian Duty”. The Kansas police or KBI, begin their investigation into the murders. The investigation is headed up by a detective named Alvin Dewey. Dewey has little to go on but he suspects that at least two murderers were involved in the killings. He cannot divine a motive, as there was little money in the house.
At this point, Capote begins slowly revealing how the Clutter family was killed and where their bodies were found. Herbert was found in the furnace room; he was shot in the head, and his throat was slit. Kenyon was found in the basement recreational room and he had been shot. Nancy and Mrs. Clutter were found in their own beds having both been shot.
In a town in Oklahoma called Olathe, Perry and Dick remain on the run and stop to eat in a diner. Dick is starving but Perry barely eats, worrying that they will be caught. He bullies Dick into admitting that they went to Kansas on incorrect information. Dick and Perry survive by writing bad checks and buying items that they can pawn. In Holcomb, Dewey is stressed about the case and hounded by the citizens of the town who are terrified that the killer may be someone they know and constantly call his home phone with tips about the crime. Each tip has to be investigated and most pan out to be nothing.
Marie, Dewey’s wife, wonders if things will ever quiet down. Two of the Clutter daughters, who were older and had already moved out of the house, survived the crime. One of the daughters seizes the opportunity of all of her extended family traveling to town because of the murders and decides to marry the next weekend.
Perry and Dick travel all the way down to Mexico. Perry confesses to Dick that he is surprised that he had the stomach to go through with the murders. He admits that when he previously told Dick that he had killed a black man for no reason, he was lying. But as they begin driving again, Dick swerves to hit stray dogs on the road.
Back in Holcomb, after a few weeks have passed, the journalists have left the town for bigger stories, but the town’s residents still continue to gossip.
Dick and Perry spend some time in Mexico and befriend a German tourist named Otto who owns a boat. Otto takes the pair fishing and Perry sings and plays a guitar while they drift in the waters. Dick and Perry are low on money and have to return to Mexico City.
Back in Holcomb, Mr. Helms continues to take care of the grounds around the Clutter house as if the family were still alive. One day he sees a face in Bonnie Clutter’s bedroom window and calls the police. The police arrive and apprehend a homeless man named Daniel Adrian who has been living in the house.
Back in Mexico City, Perry and Dick must leave their hotel as they have run completely out of money. They decide to return to America and Perry tries to decide what to bring with him. He has been carrying around two boxes filled with his personal effects. They hold mostly old letters, notebooks and things from his youth. In one box is a letter from his father, Tex John Smith which was sent to the prison in order to hopefully get Perry early parole. The letter is basically a biography of Perry’s life and reasoning about his offenses. Perry’s father insists that he was a normal child and that he has a good heart but that he tends to act out when he is told what to do.
This makes Perry remember his childhood and how his parents used to ride horses in a rodeo. After they divorced, he went to stay with his mother. Perry tried once to run away to be with his father but was turned away when he got there. He later ended up in a Catholic orphanage where he was beat by the nurses. After this his father finally took him in but he only made it to the third grade in his schooling. Perry’s father built a mobile home and the pair traveled the country in the home. When he was only sixteen, Perry joined the Merchant Marines and then the Army.
After finishing his service he intended to join his father in Alaska but that was when he got into his motorcycle accident and had to stay in the hospital for a year. He and his father than had a falling out and Perry went to Massachusetts but he fell in with “bad company” on the way there and being robbing stores in Kansas. He was arrested but managed to escape. He then traveled to Massachusetts and then New York where he was finally caught and sent back to jail in Kansas. It was there that he met Dick Hickock. By this time, Perry had lost his mother, brother and sister and his remaining sister, Barbara wrote him a letter scolding him for ending up in jail.
Willie-Jay, Perry’s prison friend, finds this letter and writes an interpretation of it, saying that Barbara is obviously a conformist and full of her own failings. While Perry now goes over his old notebooks from prison, Dick makes love on the other bed to a prostitute named Inez that he has promised to marry. Dick and Perry eventually hitchhike their way into the Mojave desert. With no money and no prospects, they wait for a car to come along so they can rob it. Back in Holcomb, Dewey works himself almost to the point of exhaustion on solving the case. The people of the town continue to harass him for not arresting anyone yet.
A man named Floyd Wells is relaxing in his jail cell when he hears news over the radio of the Clutter murders. He is flabbergasted as he realizes that his former cellmate, Dick Hickock has apparently gone through with his murderous plans. Wells himself told Hickock of the fortune that Herbert Clutter had at River Valley Farm as he was a former employee of the farm. Wells vacillates on what he should do for several weeks before finally reporting to the police what he knows.
The KBI team speaks with Wells and begin to feel that this is a strong lead for their case. Another KBI agent, Harold Nye, visits the Hickock’s home in Oklahoma and, pretending to be after Dick for the bad checks that he has been writing, learns about Dick’s supposed visit to his sister on the night of the murders. He also sees a shotgun leaning against a wall in the house.
Dick and Perry manage to catch a ride with a man but just as Dick gives Perry the signal to club the man over the head so that they can rob him, the man sees another hitchhiker on the road and stops to pick him up, unwittingly saving his own life. Nye begins following Perry and Dick’s trail through the states and finds one of the boxes of personal effects that Perry had left behind. He then goes to visit Perry’s sister, Barbara in San Francisco. She tells him that she has not seen Perry and would report it if she did. Later that night she looks over photos of herself and her brother and wonders where their relationship went wrong.
In Iowa, Dick and Perry take shelter in a barn and find a 1956 Chevy with the key still inside. They decide to steal it and return to Kansas City as Dick is sure that he can pass more bad checks there. They travel to Kansas City where Dick does manage to cash a few big checks and switch the license plate on the car.
In Holcomb, Dewey wakes from a nightmare in which the murderers are attacking him to a call from Nye saying that Dick Hickock has been passing bad checks in Kansas City. However, the two leave town unknowingly before Dewey can get there and travel to Miami. That Christmas, Dick and Perry sit on a beach in Miami and Dick tries to befriend an underage girl. This disgusts Perry and interrupts his own internal suicidal thoughts.
That morning, Bobby remembers who he would brave the weather every year to bring Nancy Clutter her Christmas present. Bobby begins walking, mindlessly and when he looks up he realizes that he is in the Clutter’s orchard where the fruit is rotting off the trees. Dick and Perry run out of money again and return to the west to look for work. They travel to Texas where they pick up a young boy and his grandfather. They are impressed by the boy’s ability to spy empty bottles from the car and collect the bottles to exchange for cash.
On December 30th, Dewey gets a phone call and steps out of the shower to take it. His wife wonders why he is dripping water everywhere and without explaining he hugs her like he has just received good news. He has not taken a day off since the case started in mid-November. A police officer in Las Vegas has reported seeing Perry and Dick’s license plate and Perry has picked up a package at a local post office. Dewey, Nye and two other KBI agents travel to Vegas and prepare to question Dick and Perry after they are arrested. Dick and Perry assume that they have been brought in for passing bad checks, and are not worried.
Nye questions Dick who is used to speaking to police and acts very cocky. They ask him about the bad checks he wrote in Olathe and he tells them that they were in Fort Scott on the night in question and that they couldn’t find Perry’s sister and spent the night with a couple of prostitutes. Dick continues to act smug and Nye finally admits that they are accusing him of murdering the Clutter family. Dick is finally bothered by this and though he denies it, Nye notices that he looks shaken.
Meanwhile, in another room, Dewey questions Perry. They go over the same questions used on Dick with the same result. Perry is upset about being accused of these murders and lies in a cell, troubled that night.
The next day, Dick cracks and tells the officers that Perry was the one who killed the Clutters. The men are taken in different cars back to Garden City, Kansas where a large crowd waits for them in front of the jail. Perry finally admits that he and Dick killed the Clutters when he realizes that Dick has already confessed. He tells Dewey that Dick was told by Wells that Herbert had a large safe full of money. However, when the two broke into the house, they could not find the safe and Perry wanted to leave. Dick thought they should look around more. They woke up the family and tied them up, a process which took hours. Dick tells Perry that he is going to rape Nancy but Perry tells him that he will kill him if he does. Perry is nervous and frantic, but he shoots the two men while Dick shoots the two women.
The two criminals are kept in the Garden City jail which is connected to the courthouse. The courthouse is also home to the assistant sheriff, Wendle Meier, whose wife Josephine tells her husband that she finds Perry “gentle.” Wendle corrects her and reminds her of what Perry did to be arrested.
Perry keeps a journal while he awaits his trial and recants his earlier confession within it’s pages. He writes that he shot all four victims. He hears over the radio that the district attorney is looking to secure the death penalty. Perry does not receive any letters from his family but does receive one from an old army buddy who tries to convert him to Catholicism. Perry writes back seemingly in good spirits, saying that he disbelieves religion but that he would love to renew their friendship.
Meanwhile, in his cell, Dick appears relaxed but secretly plans to escape using a shiv that he has created from a brush. In Perry’s diary, it is revealed that the sheriff found Dick’s shiv and disposed of it. Perry begins fantasizing about someone coming to rescue him, but he knows that it will never happen.
The trial soon begins. A psychologist is called in and he asks Perry to write an autobiography about himself for the jury. Perry focuses hard on this task and writes intensely, relating the most harrowing experiences of his childhood. Dick also writes such an autobiography but is more flippant about it.
The next day the state presents it’s case. Many witnesses are called, and Floyd Wells testifies. Dewey testifies later in the week and his description of what took place on the night of the murders shocks the audience and the jury.
The following Monday, the defense presents it’s case and the psychologist is the only witness of note. According to an edict in Kansas, the only thing a psychologist can do in these cases is testify whether the accused knew right from wrong at the time of the crime. When it comes to Perry, the psychologist is not sure and the judge does not let him elaborate. Capote describes what the psychologist would have said, that Perry is potentially a paranoid schizophrenic.
Many of the most prominent citizens of Garden City come to the court on the last day to hear the verdict. Judge Tate asks the jury not to be “chicken-hearted, ” and they pronounce the men guilty and call for the death penalty. As they leave the courtroom, Perry says to Dick, “No chicken-hearted jurors, they” and the two share a laugh over this.
Perry and Dick are taken to the death row section of Lansing Penitentiary. Many of the states worst criminals are here including Lee Andrews, a biology student who killed his entire family and then confessed. Dick spends his time waiting for his execution writing to different organizations and asking for help with his appeal, as well as smoking and reading erotic books. Perry tries to starve himself to death until he receives a letter from his father.
Two years go by with execution dates being postponed again and again. A representative of the Kansas bar association named Shultz receives one of Dick’s letters and decides to help him. Dick has another hearing and Shultz claims that the jury was biased against his client as was Judge Tate.
But this is quickly thrown out and Dick is put back in his cell. Dick speaks to a journalist about the other prisoners in death row and says that he likes them but that none of them like Perry. He says that he no longer gets along with Perry either.
Five years go by after the first trial before Perry and Dick are finally executed. The case is taken to the Supreme Court twice. On April 15th, 1965, Perry and Dick are hanged. Dewey attends the execution. Dick is lead into the room and tells everyone that he holds no hard feelings and shakes hands with four of the KBI officers.
After he is hanged, Perry is lead in. He tells everyone that he is sorry before he is hanged as well. Dewey leaves and realizes that he doesn’t feel relieved. He remembers running into Susan Kidwell at the graveyard when he was visiting the Clutter’s graves recently. Susan told him that she was doing well and Bobby Rupp had been married.
The book ends with an image of the wind blowing over the grass of the graveyard.
Perry Edward Smith – one of the two murders of the Clutter family. Perry is short man whose legs were badly wounded in a motorcycle accident and became shrunken. Perry’s back story is most heavily gone into of the two murderers. It is revealed that his parents were rodeo workers who divorced when he was a young child. He was sent to live with his mother, but still favored his father and ran away to live with the man. After being turned away, Perry was sent to an orphanage where he suffered abuse. Perry was later adopted by his father who took him around the country in a mobile home. Perry’s main drive in the book is the wish to return to his father in Alaska. He obviously seeks the approval of his father the same way that he did as a young boy and he is revealed to be somewhat child-like in other way as well.
Though he was a real person, it’s hard to get an accurate read of Perry as a character in the book. Toward the end of the novel, he confesses to the crime and it is through this that Capote gleans most of his information for the book. However, being a criminal there is always the chance that Perry was lying and made up every word. He seems to have a slightly more smug air in the scenes that Capote was actually physically present for, such as the trial and the hanging, which are at odds with the repentant, damaged man that Capote usually portrays him to be.
Richard Eugene Hickock – one of the two murderers of the Clutter family. Dick, as he is known, is an athletic-bodied man who grew up in a seemingly peaceful family home in Kansas. Dick was married twice before being jailed a few times for passing bad checks. Dick is the one who learns of the supposed fortune in the Clutter’s safe and sets a plan to break into the farm into motion. According to Perry, it was Dick that wanted to tie up the family and kill them so that the two could look around the house for the safe uninterrupted. Dick is shown to a cruel, thoughtless man who kills as casually as he smokes a cigarette. He mows down stray dogs on the road the same way he kills the Clutter family and he does not seem to feel regret or even acknowledge that what he did was wrong. He is a textbook psychopath although he is revealed to be more of a coward than he lets on.
Alvin Dewey – a police officer with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Dewey is the lead officer in charge of the Clutter murder case. Dewey is a devoted investigator who throws himself so much into solving the case that he worries his wife, Marie and their two sons. He does not take a day off for a month and a half until he arrests Dick and Perry. Being in charge of the case, Dewey is forced to accept the harassment and blame of the town’s citizens as to why he has not arrested anyone for the murders.
Truman Capote Biography
Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana on September 30th, 1924. After his parents divorced when he was only four, Capote was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama where he became childhood friends with fellow author Harper Lee. Capote was a lonely child otherwise and taught himself to read and write before ever entering school. He began writing his own stories at the age of eleven and submitted a story called “Old Mrs. Busybody” to a children’s writing contest. He began receiving recognition for his stories in 1936.
When he was a 9 years old, Capote moved to New York to live with his mother and her new husband, Joseph Capote who adopted him as his step-son and gave him his last name. However, Joseph was convicted of embezzlement and the family had to leave Park Avenue.
Capote attended high school in Connecticut where he wrote for the school paper. His family returned to New York shortly after and Capote began working as a copy boy at The New Yorker. Capote began writing short stories constantly and was nominated for the O. Henry award in 1948. His stories began being published in magazines when he was in his 20’s. Capote’s short stories began being published in collections by Random House publishers in the 1940’s to much success from the public.
Capote published his first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” in 1948 which contained obvious homosexual subtext as it was around this time that Capote began realizing that he was gay. Capote was one of the first celebrities to be openly homosexual in a time when it was not accepted at all in America. The novel made the bestseller list of The New York Times and stayed there for nine weeks. The controversy and promotion of this novel was the catalyst that brought Capote to fame all over the country.
In the 1950’s, Capote began writing Broadway plays and films. He adapted his novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to a 1958 movie starring Audrey Hepburn that is still considered a classic today.
In 1958, Capote became interested in writing True Crime-style books after hearing about a the grisly murder of a family in Kansas. He traveled to Kansas to interview everyone involved with the murders and later produced his second novel, “In Cold Blood” in 1966 which was also lauded by critics. After the success of the book, Capote moved to Palm Springs, California and began writing smaller magazine articles while he took a break from novel-writing.
Unfortunately, Capote became so busy with his own celebrity that he never wrote another novel. Capote began to suffer from heavy drug problems in the 1970’s and regularly attended various drug rehabs during that decade.
Capote died at the age of 59 in Bel Air, Los Angeles on August 25th, 1984. The coroner’s official report revealed his death to have been caused by “liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication”. Capote was cremated and his ashes were given to his long-time companion, Jack Dunphy. After Dunphy’s death in 1992, his and Capote’s ashes were scattered where they had lived in Bridgehampton, New York. A stone marker now indicates this spot.