Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Random House, 1965. 343 pages.


Summary. In Cold Blood is the true story of a multiple murder that rocked the small town of Holcomb, Kansas and neighboring communities in 1959. It begins by introducing the reader to an ideal, all-American family, the Clutters — Herb (the father), Bonnie (the mother), Nancy (the teenage daughter), and Kenyon (the teenage son). The Clutters were prominent members of their community who gained admiration and respect for their neighborly demeanors.
After being introduced to the Clutter family, the reader becomes acquainted with Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The two were former inmates who met in prison. After their release, the men meet up for what Dick calls Aa perfect emailprotected As it turns out, Dick=s cell mate had worked for the Clutters some years earlier and suggested to Dick that he check into employment at the Clutters= farm because the Clutters were such friendly, kindhearted people. The more Dick learned about the Clutters, the more he considered seeking fast cash as opposed to employment. During the trial in the last chapter of the book, however, Dick admitted that his sexual interest in teenage girls was the most powerful force in his decision to invade the Clutters= home. (Perry stopped him from harming Nancy.)
Finally, the killers were identified by Dick=s former cell mate and tracked down in Las Vegas. In the time leading up to their arrest, the reader is offered greater insight into the characters of the two men. Because Perry opposed Dick=s crude behavior and showed compassion for the people Dick intended to harm or slight, we are left to feel a bit of sympathy for him. It becomes tempting to see Dick as the manipulative leader and Perry as the helpless follower.

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After the suspects were taken into custody, Perry eventually confessed that he had killed Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon — tied each of them up, made sure they were comfortable, then shot each of them in the head with a shotgun. In addition, it was Perry who cut Herb=s throat. Though Dick didn=t actually pull the trigger or hold the knife, he shined the flashlight into the faces of the victims as Perry killed them. Both men were found guilty of 4 counts of premeditated murder, and each was sentenced to death. While awaiting their executions, they appealed several times, losing each time, but managing to have their execution dates postponed. They were finally executed (by hanging) in April of 1966.


Genre, structure, persona, and style. In Cold Blood is one of the first successful nonfiction novels. Capote takes actual details and events concerning the murders of the Clutter family and weaves them into what sometimes seems like a fictional tale. The manner in which he leads the reader into shock gives the impression that the story has been fabricated with the sole intention of creating such shock. (For example: Throughout the first half of the book, Capote convinces us that Perry is the least evil of the two killers, that he is least capable of inflicting the sort of violence to which the Clutters were subjected. We are given the impression that Dick must be the one who pulled the trigger and cut Herb Clutter=s throat, for he is apparently the boldest, the most brutal, the most heartless of the two. Capote reveals much later in the story, however, that it was actually Perry who killed the four people in the Clutter=s house that night. Such an unexpected twist seems almost fictional, too well-crafted to be true.) We must continue to remind ourselves that the events actually took place — that the story is nonfiction, as unbelievable as it may seem at times.


Capote tells the story in a way that makes the reader feel like he or she is being told about the characters by a close acquaintance of each individual character. When we aren=t hearing the voices of the characters as they tell their own stories (or being given what seems like their own individual perspectives through narration), we hear, not the voice of an omniscient author, but the voice of a friend who knew the characters well. (ABefore saying her prayers, she always recorded in a diary a few occurrences…,@ APerry didn=t care what he drank…,@ etc…)
The structure and style of the story allows the reader to feel as if he or she is a part of the events which transpire. We first become acquainted with the Clutter family through great detail. It seems as though we learn everything there is to know about the lives of Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon — that Bonnie spends the majority of her days locked in her room or in treatment centers as a result of some mysterious psychological disorder, that Herb prefers apples for breakfast, that Nancy is the perfect teenage girl ( a popular Betty Crocker- Barbie doll combo), that Kenyon is a loner who enjoys spending time in the basement working on inventions and building furniture… Once we have gained such knowledge, the story begins to shift back and forth between the events taking place in the Clutter=s lives just prior to their deaths and the events taking place in the killers= lives (their preparations for the Aperfect emailprotected). When the two killers arrive at the Clutter=s home, we are left only with the information that Athe car crept emailprotected toward the house. Suddenly, we are witnesses to the events which transpire the following morning as two teenage girls (who had planned to attend church with the Clutters) end up finding the bodies in the house. It is not until the killers are captured much later in the story that we learn what happened in the house that night, and in the time between the Clutters= killings and the apprehension of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, we shift repeatedly between the goings-on in the Clutter=s community (the fear among the citizens of Holcomb and neighboring areas, the investigation, etc…) and the actions of the killers (their 7 week trek throughout the United States and Mexico). Because we aren=t given information concerning the murders until the killers are captured, we are able to experience the sense of fear and frustration (of not knowing who or why) which plagues the local citizens and law enforcement officials. We feel as helpless as anyone else in the community. And when the killers are finally captured, we, too, are able to experience genuine relief. Not until Perry=s confession do we learn the actual events which took place at the Clutters= estate on the night of the murders, and it is the withholding of this information which makes us feel as if we are a part of the experience, for we learn the details only when the law enforcement officials learn the details. We are not privileged in any way by the author=s insight. And finally, as the story concludes, we feel, through Capote=s careful presentation of the facts, that we are participants of the trial ourselves — that we experience the witnesses= testimony only when the jurors and spectators do so themselves. Having the author reserve vital information so that we learn only what the community learns, when they learn it, offers the opportunity for us to experience genuine emotions as the events unfold.
Biographical sketch. Truman Capote was born in New Orleans on September 30, 1924 and died in Los Angeles on August 26, 1984. During his life, he wrote many short stories, travel pieces, journalistic articles, novels, and even plays, but it was In Cold Blood that earned him a prominent position among the founding fathers of a new literary form, the nonfiction novel. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (published in 1948) was an enormous success, as were many of his other works (such as Breakfast at Tiffany=s, which was published in 1958). In Cold Blood first appeared as a series for The New Yorker in 1965 after six years of intensive research and careful formulation.(Capote actually spent a portion of those six years living in Kansas where the Clutter family murders occurred.) Following In Cold Blood, Capote went on to produce other works of various sorts, including A Christmas Memory (1966) and Music For Chameleons (1981), the latter being a collection of short stories, interviews, and articles published in numerous magazines. His final book, Answered Prayers, was never finished, but the stories he wrote for the autobiographical collection were published after his death.
Overall evaluation and recommendation. While the introduction of In Cold Blood may seem at first like a dull, windy, drawn-out account of the Clutter=s lives, it becomes apparent as the story progresses that it actually serves a purpose. After the murders, the reader feels as if he or she has lost four close, personal friends. Furthermore, some of the seemingly trivial facts the author presents in the beginning pages turn out to be relevant later in the story (for example: We learn a great deal about the family=s dog, including the fact that he is gun-shy, yet is only after the murders that we are able to realize the significance — that the dog survived the rampage by failing to alert Herb=s employees who lived in a nearby house on the property.) Once the reader treads through the introduction, the story begins to take off, leaving the reader more and more interested in learning the facts of the murders.
Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the glimpse it offers of American life in the late 1950=s. I found it incredible that children 11 and 12 years old were allowed to drive on a regular basis. How many 11 year-old boys these days have saved up enough money to buy their own cars (by raising sheep, nonetheless)? And how many women these days brush their hair a hundred strokes each morning and a hundred more each evening?
In Cold Blood addresses a variety of issues including questions of whether a person=s upbringing plays a role in criminal activity, and whether the death penalty is right or wrong. It also deals with issues such as prejudice and religion. This novel might therefore appeal to a wide variety of readers beyond those interested in true-crime novels. Almost anyone would be amazed by the manner in which Capote leads the reader through all the twists and turns of the story from various point of view. (At one point, he recounts the same event from two opposing points of view, first Dick=s, then Perry=s. Midway into the second account, the reader realizes that it is an instant replay, through Perry=s thoughts, of the events which were shown in the preceding segment from Dick=s perspective.) These analyses from various points of view might be especially appealing to anyone with an interest in psychological works. Readers who have little tolerance for carnage, however, might have a problem with the sections of the story in which the accounts of the murders take place, and might also be disturbed by the concluding chapter in which the two killers are finally executed.
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