In Cold Blood Summary Essays
Truman Capotes novel In Cold Blood, published in , is one of the most prominent examples of the “new journalism” literary genre. It tells the story of the murder of Gregory Clutter and his family, committed by two former convicts: Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Truman Capote based his story on real life events, and thus all characters in his novel were non-fictional. Capote managed to uncover the psychology of the two mass murderers through interviews with them and with other figures of this grim case, and depicted complex motives that pushed Smith and Hickock towards committing the crime.
The novel starts with a description of Herbert Clutter, a farmer from a small town of Holcomb, Kansas. He is a respected self-made man, and everyone in town likes him and his family: his wife Bonnie, who suffers from some sort of depression, and his two children, Kenyon and Nancy. Clutters two other elder daughters are married and live in other cities. Clutter is a member of the Methodist church—he is known as a fair man of conservative outlook.
One day, Susan Kidwell, a young woman from Clutters neighborhood, visits their house and finds Nancy Clutter lying dead in her room. When the police arrives, they find the bodies of Bonnie, Kenyon, and Herbert Clutter; all of them were tied with ropes and shot by a shotgun. No evidence was found at the crime scene; however, after processing the photos from Clutters place, detective Alvin Dewey, who is in charge of the investigation, notices several footsteps in one of the pictures. This remains the main evidence for a rather long period of time; Dewey and his team do titanic work, checking any version of how the crime was committed and any suspect, talking to locals, and trying to reconstruct the events of November 15, , when the Clutter family was murdered.
At the same time, Capote depicts the life of Perry Smith and his friend Richard “Dick” Hickock. Though Capote does not directly accuse them of murder, by hints it becomes clear to the reader that Smith and Hickock are guilty. They travel across the United States, stealing food and performing financial frauds with cash checks. They spend some time in Mexico, then return to the United States. Hickock suggests to return to Kansas City as he has some “friends” there; he plans to extort money from them and then to finally leave Kansas forever.
At the same time, Hickocks former cellmate Floyd Wells, who had once worked as a hired worker on Clutters farm, recalls how he told Hickock about Clutters. Back then, Wells supposed that Clutters should have had about $10, at home; according to his words, Hickock planned to visit Clutters as soon as he got out of jail. Wells tells his story to detectives; he is assured in Hickocks guilt, as the murder was committed exactly how Hickock planned to do it.
After visiting Kansas City and successfully passing several more hot checks, Smith and Hickock go to Miami, where they live for some time. Then they go to Las Vegas in a stolen car. Always lacking money, they plan to rob and kill prosperous-looking causal companions, but they do not manage to do it. Instead, in Las Vegas their license plate number is recognized by a policewoman; both criminals are arrested on December 30, Though they try to plead temporary insanity, they are both found guilty and sentenced to death through hanging. The sentence is executed on April 14,
Capote, who researched prisoners extensively through interviews, describes the psychology of both Perry Smith and his companion. According to Capote, Perry Smith (whom the author is told to have made friends with), had a tragic fate; three of his siblings (mother, a sister and a brother) had committed suicide. He suffered from a severe mental disorder, supposedly schizophrenia; Smiths emotional reactions were separated from his consciousness. Hickock, on the other hand, had a relatively safe and happy past, but his character changed after a car accident, when he got head trauma. Since that time, Hickock suffered from partial amnesia and headaches, and displayed a craving for theft. Anyways, difficult pasts and psychological traumas do not save the criminals from being hanged.
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Near the western border of Kansas, among wheat fields and dusty roads, lies Holcomb, a small community of farmers and ranchers. On the morning of November 14, , Herb Clutter strolls across the grounds of River Valley Farm, heading toward a grove of trees that he nursed to life with the same care and purpose that he used to raise four children and build one of the largest, most prosperous spreads in Finney County. An educated, widely respected wheat farmer, Herb Clutter has little to worry about that Saturday morning. A lingering illness left his wife, Bonnie, partially disabled, but recent medical tests encourage the family to think that her medical problem is improving. Daughter Nancy, sixteen years old, the town sweetheart, helps with the household chores. She and her brother, Kenyon, fifteen years old, are outstanding students in the local high school. Two older daughters live out of town.
On that same morning, nearly four hundred miles east, in Olathe, Kansas, Perry Smith sits in a café waiting for his friend, Dick Hickock. They plan to drive to Holcomb, rob Clutter, kill everyone in the house, and flee to Mexico, where they hope to buy a boat and hunt for undersea treasure. Recently paroled from Kansas State Penitentiary and ordered to stay out of the state, Perry is persuaded to return to Kansas when Dick, also paroled, writes him of his plan to rob Clutter. According to Dick’s last cellmate, a former hired hand of Clutter, the farmer keeps as much as ten thousand dollars in his house.
Arriving at the Clutter farm near midnight, Perry and Dick enter through an unlocked door, awaken the victims, tie them up, and put them in separate rooms in the house. The killers find no wall safe stuffed with thousands of dollars; instead, they find Clutter’s wallet, containing about forty dollars. Still determined to leave no witnesses, the killers cut Clutter’s throat, then shoot him in the head at close range with a shotgun; the other three victims are shot, one by one, in similar fashion.
When the bodies are discovered the next morning, neighbors, friends, and relatives are electrified by the shocking crime. Alvin Dewey and his team of three investigators from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in nearby Garden City interview anyone remotely connected to the Clutters or to River Valley Farm. Nothing develops from these efforts, not even a firm theory as to whether the Clutters were killed by one person or by two, and none of the investigators is sure why the four were killed. Robbery is a possible motive, but the few clues left by the killers confirm none of these theories.
Back in Olathe, Perry and Dick continue with their plans to go to Mexico, despite their failure in Holcomb. On November 21, Dick begins passing bad checks to finance their Mexican venture. Mexico, however, proves grimly disappointing. After a week in Mexico City and a trip to Acapulco, they use up most of their money, and the pawned merchandise is all but gone as well. A wealthy German finances a few days on a fishing boat, but plans of diving for treasure are scuttled by the obvious: Neither man takes well to water, and money is as elusive as the buried treasure of Perry’s dream. Back in Mexico City, their car sold and their finances rapidly dwindling, they decide to return to the United States. A bus takes them to Barstow, California, where they set about hitchhiking toward Kansas, harboring a plan to rob and kill a motorist. That plan is foiled when the prospective victim, a salesman who gave them a ride, stops for another hitchhiker.
Dewey’s investigation takes an upward turn when Hickock’s former prison cellmate tells the warden of Hickock’s plan to rob and kill the Clutters. That lead proves promising. The agents begin hunting Smith and Hickock, but the killers elude capture as they drive through Kansas in a stolen car. They pass bad checks to finance a trip to Miami, where they spend Christmas. Once again without money, they turn toward home, redeeming empty bottles found along the highway. Their journey ends in Las Vegas with their arrest in front of the post office; they stopped to pick up the package containing the boots worn during the Clutter murders. Perry mailed the package from Mexico. Dewey and his team hurry to Las Vegas, where, under the pressure of interrogation, Dick confesses to the crime. On the car ride back to Garden City, Perry recounts the details of the crime in full.
Housed in the county jail, the pair spends three months awaiting trial. The prosecution has a strong case, based on the murder weapons, the boots worn by the killers during the murders, the testimony of Dick’s former cellmate, and the killers’ confessions. The defense attorneys have no case. A psychiatric examination fails to justify a plea of insanity, and a few character witnesses do not sway the jury in favor of the two defendants. Both are convicted of all four murders and sentenced to hang.
Sent to the state penitentiary in Lansing in April, , Perry and Dick spend the next five years on Death Row. Through a narrow window they can see across an empty lot the door that leads to the gallows. Three execution dates come and go, and when their last appeal is denied, they are hanged on April 14,