88 pages 2 hours read

Truman Capote

In Cold Blood

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1965

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Summary and Study Guide


In Cold Blood is a nonfiction true crime novel published in 1966 by the American author Truman Capote. First published a year earlier as a serial in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood tells a broadly true account of the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Scholars consider the book one of the earliest and most successful examples of the nonfiction novel, a genre that combines journalistic reportage with techniques typically associated with fiction. Capote incorporates literary devices like symbolism and imaginatively reconstructs the inner thoughts of his characters. Controversy surrounds the novel concerning its accuracy; some of the individuals involved in the murder and subsequent investigation claim that Capote fabricated conversations and interactions. Moreover, the novel’s graphic violence and its allusions to sexual taboos periodically lands it on lists of banned books. Nevertheless, In Cold Blood had a significant cultural impact, helping to popularize the true crime genre and inspiring multiple film adaptations.

Plot Summary

Rotating between various points of view, Capote introduces the readers to the Clutters—a prosperous farming family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas—and to their killers. The story begins on November 14, 1959, the last day of the Clutters’ lives. Oblivious to their fate, Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenage children Nancy and Kenyon go about their routine business. Meanwhile, the two ex-convicts who will murder them—Dick Hickock and Perry Smith—drive to Holcomb where they plan to rob a safe they mistakenly believe exists in the Clutter home.

The next morning, two of Nancy’s friends discover all four Clutters bound and murdered by gunshot wounds. The local sheriff hands the case over to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI), which opens an investigation led by Special Agent Al Dewey. Meanwhile, the town of Holcomb grapples with the murder of a respectable local family, possibly by someone from their own community.

Dick and Perry flee to Mexico, where Perry wants to dive for sunken treasure. However, it is clear that Dick, who squanders their money on alcohol and prostitutes, does not share his aspirations. A lack of funds forces the pair to return to the United States. In Las Vegas, authorities apprehend Dick and Perry based on a tip from Floyd Wells, Dick’s former cellmate who misinformed him about the Clutters’ safe. Dick quickly confesses to his involvement but claims Perry is personally responsible for all four murders. Perry confesses later, detailing how mounting frustration with both Dick and the entire situation led him to kill Herbert in a state of rage and shame. Perry further claims that he killed Herbert and Kenyon while Dick killed Bonnie and Nancy.

On January 6, 1960, authorities imprison and try Perry and Dick in Garden City, Kansas. Their best hope of acquittal lies in an insanity plea. While a psychiatrist concludes that both men may bear diminished responsibility for the crime, the court rules most of his testimony inadmissible. Ultimately, the jury convicts Perry and Dick, and the judge sentences them to death. They spend the next five years on Death Row at the Kansas State Penitentiary, where Dick attempts to overturn the initial verdict on grounds of bias and the perceived incompetence of his court-appointed attorneys. His appeals fail, and both men hang on April 14, 1965. Dewey attends the execution but receives no closure. Instead, his mind drifts to a chance encounter with one of Nancy’s friends, now happy and away at college.