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In Cold Blood

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English Literature

Written by Truman Capote and first published in 1965, In Cold Blood launched the international popularity of the true-crime novel. Capote’s gripping portrayal of the Clutter family’s brutal murder and the ensuing investigation made this nonfiction novel an immediate success and earned its place in American literary history.

In Cold Blood: A Book by Truman Capote

On November 15, 1959, the Clutters, a family of four, were found violently murdered in a small Kansas town called Holcomb. Mr. and Mrs. Clutter, along with their two children, fifteen-year-old Kenyon and sixteen-year-old Nancy, were each tied up and then shot. Nothing of value was missing from their home. The brutality of the crime and apparent lack of motive mystified the police.

From his home in New York City, writer Truman Capote read about the crime and immediately knew he wanted to write about the subject.

Along with his childhood friend and fellow writer Harper Lee, Capote made the journey to Kansas. He would spend the next six years conducting interviews with the murderers, their families, the detectives, and various residents of Holcomb.

The resulting nonfiction novel was published in The New Yorker in four installments in 1965 and in book form the following year.

In Cold Blood: Summary

The nonfiction novel In Cold Blood is divided into four parts.

Part One: The Last to See Them Alive

Part One begins on November 14, 1959, the morning preceding the Clutters’ murder. The reader is introduced to the Clutter family: Herbert “Herb” William Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon.

The Clutters are an idyllic all-American family. Mr. Clutter owns a large ranch where he employs as many as eighteen workers. His employees describe him as a fair boss who pays good wages with generous bonuses for hard workers. He is devoted to his wife, Bonnie, a fragile woman who suffers from bouts of depression.

In Cold Blood, Kansas, StudySmarterIn Cold Blood takes place in the sleepy town of Holcomb, Kansas. Pixabay.

The Clutters have four children, two older daughters who no longer live at home and a teenage son and daughter. Nancy, the eldest of the two, is Holcomb’s sweetheart. She is beautiful, talented, and kind to everyone. Her brother, Kenyon, is a shy but intelligent boy with a knack for building things.

As the Clutters go about what will be the last day of their lives, two young men, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, set off from Olathe, Kansas, driving the nearly 400 miles to Holcomb with the sole purpose of killing the Clutters.

The men, who met serving time in the Kansas State Penitentiary, plan to rob and murder the family, then use the money to go to Mexico. Along the way, they stop to buy rope and rubber gloves. Perry wants to buy stockings, too, to cover their faces and conceal their identities, but Dick argues that it isn’t necessary: no witnesses will be left when they’re finished.

On the Sunday morning of November 15, Nancy Ewalt, one of Nancy Clutter’s classmates, arrives to ride with the Clutters to a church service. When there is no answer at the door, she and Susan Kidwell, Nancy Clutter’s friend, enter the Clutter house, where they find the family murdered.

Part Two: Persons Unknown

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation begins to investigate the crime under the direction of the officer Alvin Dewey. There is little to go on. The only thing apparently missing from the house is an old radio, ruling out robbery as a motive. And the killers have left nothing behind save a few footprints.

In Cold Blood, Footprints, StudySmarterA footprint is one of the only clues the killers leave behind. Pixabay.

The town of Holcomb is deeply affected by the crime. The townspeople are frightened, and doors that would normally be left open are locked up at night.

Perry and Dick have returned to Olathe following the crime, and finally, using money raised from writing hot checks, the two arrive in Mexico. They stay for a time, but when they run out of money, they decide to return to the States.

In preparation for leaving Mexico, Perry must sort through the boxes of belongings that he has been carrying with him. In one of these boxes, Perry uncovers a letter from his father, which lead him to reminisce about his childhood.

Perry’s parents divorced when he was a young child, and he found himself in a Catholic orphanage after being rejected by his father. There, he suffered abuse at the hands of the nuns and eventually made his way back to his father. At sixteen years old, he joined the Merchant Marines, where he served in Japan and Korea.

Upon his return, he was involved in a motorcycle accident, leaving him with chronic pain in both of his broken legs. Perry then robbed a store with some other men, for which he was sent to prison in Kansas, where he met Dick.

Part Three: Answer

Dick’s former cellmate and the still-imprisoned former employee of Herb Clutter, Floyd Wells, hears about the Clutter case one day. Surprised, he knows immediately that Dick must have been responsible. When the two were cellmates, Wells had told Dick all about the Clutters and their ranch, and Dick had told Wells about his plan to murder the family.

Based on Wells' recollections of his time on the Clutter ranch, Dick believed that there would be a safe with a large sum of money in Mr. Clutter's office. He intended to rob the Clutters and then murder them.

Wells never took Dick seriously, but, hearing about the crime, he notices that it took place exactly as Dick had told him it would. Still, in jail, Wells hesitates to inform the authorities because he doesn’t want the other inmates to regard him as a snitch.

Finally, however, Wells admits, and the KBI agents begin searching for Dick and Perry, who are hitchhiking across the country and planning to kill again to remedy their lack of funds.

On December 30th, the KBI agents receive news that the killers have been apprehended in Las Vegas. Four agents make the journey from Kansas to interrogate the two men. The team of agents know that there is no hard evidence tying Perry and Dick to the Clutters’ murder; they need a confession from the men and therefore have to plan their interrogation carefully. Perry and Dick believe they have been arrested for writing hot checks. They have no idea that anyone suspects their involvement in the Clutter case.

Throughout the interrogations, both men slowly begin to unravel, and Perry finally makes a detailed confession during the ride back to Kansas. The reader learns for the first time exactly how the Clutter family was murdered.

The safe that Dick and Perry had expected to find was non-existent. All the cash in the Clutter's home amounted to less than fifty dollars, including a silver dollar from Nancy Clutter's purse that Perry drops and has to retrieve on his hands and knees. The motive that had for weeks eluded the KBI agents was as simple as a robbery gone wrong.

Part Four: The Corner

Back in Kansas, Dick and Perry are placed in cells in the Garden City Jail, awaiting their trial. The two are kept separated, and Perry’s cell, usually reserved for women, adjoins the kitchen of the undersheriff and his wife, Josephine, who live on the same floor as the jail. Josephine often sympathizes with Perry, who she sees as a gentle boy.

Both men harbor fantasies of escape, and Dick even goes so far as to make a homemade shiv weapon, which is discovered under his mattress.

When the trial begins, the murderers’ court-appointed lawyers try to argue that the defendants were not sane when they committed the crime, but the state psychologist that examines them finds both men to be of sound mental health.

The jury deliberates for only forty-five minutes before finding the two men guilty of the four counts of murder. They are sentenced to death.

In Cold Blood, Prison, StduySmarterPerry and Dick spend five years awaiting their execution. Pixabay.

Perry and Dick are then transported to the Kansas State Penitentiary, where they wait on death row for five years, unable to leave their cells and with no company but the other inmates and the very occasional visitor.

The two men are hanged in the early hours of April 14, 1965.

In Cold Blood: Characters

  • Herbert “Herb” William Clutter is the head of the Clutter family. At forty-eight years old, he owns and operates a large ranch. He is well respected and admired throughout Holcomb as a generous employer, a devoted husband, and a kind, although sometimes strict, father.
  • Bonnie Clutter is Mr. Clutter’s wife. She is a fragile woman who suffers from depression and is a frequent patient at the Westley Medical Center in Wichita, Kansas. She is often indisposed, and much of the household chores fall to Mr. Clutter and her daughter, Nancy.
  • Nancy Clutter is the Clutters’ third child and the eldest living at home. She is an attractive, popular girl who is well-loved by everyone in Holcomb, but especially by Bobby Rupp, her boyfriend of three years. Despite the length of their courtship, Nancy is a practical girl who does not envision her relationship with Bobby continuing when she goes off to college.
  • Kenyon Clutter is the youngest Clutter child. He is a shy boy, tall but not particularly athletic, and has few friends. He isn’t yet interested in girls, and when his best friend, Bob Jones, begins dating, Kenyon is left alone more and more often.
  • Perry Smith is one of the men who murder the Clutters. Although he only went to school until the third grade, he has a high opinion of his own intelligence. A motorcycle accident in his youth left him with chronic pain in his legs, which caused him to develop an addiction to aspirin.
  • Dick Hickock is the Clutters’ other murderer. Although Perry testifies that Dick did not do any of the actual murdering, the plot to rob and kill the Clutters was all Dick’s invention. He has pedophilic tendencies, which disgust Perry, and was married twice.
  • Alvin Dewey is the KBI agent in charge of the Clutters’ case. He is very invested in the investigation, which slowly takes over his life.
  • Bobby Rupp is Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend of three years. He is initially questioned about the murders but ruled out early on.

In Cold Blood: Meaning, Significance, and Reception

When Capote wrote In Cold Blood, he set out to explore a literary theory, which he outlined in a 1966 interview with The New York Times:

It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it. Several admirable reporters…have shown the possibilities of narrative reportage…Still, on the whole, journalism is the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums. -Truman Capote1

Following his “strictly aesthetic theory about creating a book which could result in a work of art,”1 Capote spent six years researching his project. When In Cold Blood was finally published, it was an instant success.

Though Capote always claimed that every bit of the book was true, some critics see In Cold Blood as more of a work of art and less of a factual account. Critics, and those Capote interviewed, have pointed out discrepancies with various facts and testimony. Some have even accused Capote of inventing or altering certain quotes and events to better suit the plot of the novel.

Despite this controversy, In Cold Blood remains one of the best-known true-crime novels of all time and Capote is often heralded as a founder of the genre.

In Cold Blood - Key takeaways

  • In Cold Blood is a nonfiction novel written by Truman Capote and published in 1965.
  • It tells the true story of the Clutter murder, a family of four that was brutally killed in rural Kansas
  • The nonfiction novel begins on the day before the family is killed and goes on to tell of the investigation, the hunt for the killers, the trial, and the killers’ time waiting on death row to be executed.
  • Capote spent six years researching In Cold Blood, conducting interviews, and talking with the book’s subjects.
  • The book was a commercial success and helped to define the genre of true-crime fiction.
1Capote, Truman. "The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel". The New York Times. 1966.

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood is famous for popularizing the genre of true crime novels. Some argue that it is the first example of a nonfiction novel.

American author Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood.

In Cold Blood is a nonfiction true-crime novel.

In Cold Blood was first published in The New Yorker magazine in four serial installments in 1965. The following year, 1966, In Cold Blood was published in book form by the publishing house Random House.

Yes, In Cold Blood tells the true story of the Clutter family’s murder.

Final In Cold Blood Quiz

Question

Who wrote In Cold Blood?

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Answer

Truman Capote

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Question

Where was In Cold Blood first published?

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Answer

In The New Yorker magazine

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Question

What year was In Cold Blood published as a book?

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Answer

1966

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Question

What literary medium did Capote want to explore when he wrote In Cold Blood?

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Answer

Journalism

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Question

How many members of the Clutter family were murdered?

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Answer

Four

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Question

Who’s idea was it to rob and murder the Clutters?


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Answer

Dick Hickock

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Question

Who was Alvin Dewey?

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Answer

The KBI officer in charge of the Clutter case

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Question

In what town did the Clutters live?

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Answer

Holcomb, Kansas

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Question

Where are Dick and Perry finally arrested?

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Answer

Las Vegas

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Question

How long do Dick and Perry spend on death row?

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Answer

Five years

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