Capote's In Cold Blood: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This lesson is a plot summary and overview of the characters in Truman Capote's non-fiction crime novel, 'In Cold Blood.' The book is the result of Capote's investigation into the 1959 murder of a Kansas farmer, his wife, and two of their children.

In Cold Blood

Imagine skimming through a newspaper and coming across a brief article reporting on a grisly quadruple homicide in a rural Kansas town. Would you read the article and go on with your day? Or would you pick up, drive across the country, and investigate the crime yourself? If you pick option two, then you have a lot in common with American author Truman Capote, because that's exactly what he did in 1959.

Capote and his childhood friend and fellow author, Harper Lee, interviewed locals and investigators in the Kansas town of Holcomb. They took copious notes and methodically compiled their research. After the killers, Richard 'Dick' Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested six weeks after the murders, Capote interviewed them repeatedly and developed a complex relationship with the pair over the next several years.

The resulting book, In Cold Blood, was first published in 1966 after six years of work. It details the events leading up to, including, and following the November 15, 1959 murders of Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their four children on their farm in Holcomb, Kansas.

In Cold Blood explores the lives of those affected by and involved in the murders. It places considerable focus on the psychological relationship between Hickock and Smith as they planned, committed, and were punished for the crimes. In Cold Blood represents Capote's quest to write what he called 'an epic nonfiction novel.' It has sold the second most copies in the true crime book genre, behind only Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter.

Summary of the Crime

Herbert Clutter was a successful, self-made, and well-liked wheat farmer who employed several farmhands. His wife, Bonnie was also well-liked, although due to poor health, she spent much of her time at home. The couple's two oldest daughters had moved out of the family home, but the two youngest still lived on the farm. Nancy and Kenyon were 16 and 15 years old and attended high school in Holcomb.

The two men who murdered the Clutter family were parolees from the Kansas State Penitentiary. While Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were imprisoned, they met another prisoner who was a former farmhand for Mr. Clutter. This man, Frank Wells, told Hickock that there was a safe at the farmhouse where Mr. Clutter kept large amounts of cash. Hickock came up with the idea to rob Mr. Clutter, leave no witnesses, and start a new life with the money.

Once out of prison, Hickock contacted Smith, his former cellmate, and they put the plan in motion. The two men drove across the state of Kansas on November 14 and arrived at the Clutter house while the family was sleeping. After waking the family up, Smith and Hickock demanded to know where the safe was. Sadly, there never was any safe. Wells had been wrong. Smith and Hickock angrily bound and gagged the family, continued to search for valuables to no avail, and then killed all four of the Clutter family members.

Once the crime was discovered, investigators zeroed in on Smith and Hickock after Frank Wells tipped them off. They arrested the pair in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959. Both murderers confessed while being interrogated by members of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. At trial, both men pleaded temporary insanity but were found guilty and received mandatory death sentences.

Smith and Hickock spent five years on death row, where they were often interviewed by Capote. Both men were executed by hanging just after midnight on April 14, 1965.

Capote's Narrative Account of the Crime and Its Aftermath

Capote crafted In Cold Blood to read as a thrilling and suspenseful narrative. Much of the book that leads up to the commission of the crime is divided into short chapters that increase the sense of pace and inevitability. The chapters alternate between glimpses into the Clutter family's daily activities and scenes of the killers as they make the long drive to the Clutter farm.

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