A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences

Published in 1965, but most of In Cold Blood had appeared already in The New Yorker.

On Saturday, November 15, 1959, two men entered a Kansas farmhouse and brutally murdered four people whom they’d never met. The story shocked nearby Holcomb and Garden City, and quickly became one of the most notorious crimes of the decade. Truman Capote was among those drawn by the grim events, and before the month was over, he had arrived in town with his assistant, Harper Lee, to research the story. In Cold Blood was the result.

Truman Capote called it a "non-fiction novel." He researched his story as a journalist would, but he told the tale using techniques typical of narrative fiction. Despite Capote’s notorious narcissism, he almost entirely erases himself from In Cold Blood. He presents the story through the words of the witnesses, and through plausible narrative accounts of events which they experienced. The result set the pattern for the many, many true crime accounts which have followed, and also set a standard which few of its successors approach. Obviously, not every detail presented in the book can be confirmed, but investigators regard In Cold Blood as a generally accurate portrayal of the Clutter murders and the circumstances that surround them.

The crime destroyed and destroys the myth of an idyllic mid-century Midwest. At the same time, In Cold Blood recognizes a reality behind that myth and plays on it. The Clutters may not have been Ozzie and Harriett-—Bonnie suffered from ongoing, often severe, depression—-but they seem enough like the people who inhabit the Midwest of the imagination that we feel a heightened sympathy for them, and acute shock at the manner of their death. Herb Clutter was a prosperous, well-liked farmer, a man involved in his community. Kenyon shared many of his father’s admirable qualities, and was on the day of the murders completing a cedar chest as a present for a sister’s forthcoming wedding. Nancy, the "town darling" (17), achieved honors and a position as class president, and involved herself in 4-H, the local Methodist church, and various school activities. In the autumn of '59, she was making her sister’s bridesmaids’ dresses and tutoring a student in music. On the day she died, she had rescheduled her day so that she could teach a younger neighbor how to bake cherry pie. Two other Clutter daughters had moved out of the house; one was married, and the other (for whose wedding Nancy and Kenyon had been preparing), was in Lawrence studying nursing at the University of Kansas. They were spared their family's fate.

Capote captures the essential goodness of these people. He evokes their time and place, and creates realistic depictions of the town and the investigators who solved the crime. Most famously, he also shows us the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Nothing excuses their crimes, and the killers' detached demeanor when discussing the events will disturb many readers. Yet Capote forces us to see the pair as human beings, rather than faceless monsters, and he does so after presenting their innocent victims in the best possible light.

Capote organized his non-fiction novel into four sections.

Expect spoilers.

I. The Last To See Them Alive

The first chapter paints a picture of Holcomb and the upright, prosperous Clutter clan. It also introduces us to Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who met in prison.

Perry Edward Smith did not experience the Clutter's privileged life. His father abused his wife and children and involved himself in activities such as bootlegging. Perry often found himself in trouble with the law, and consequently, spent part of his childhood in institutions, where he faced additional abuse. He eventually joined the merchant marines and served in the Korean War. Perry had big and wildly unrealistic plans, and often told self-aggrandizing tales of past exploits, real and imaginary.

Richard Eugene (Dick) Hickock had a more typical, less turbulent childhood, but he fell into petty crime at a young age. He had considerable personal charm, and often worked as a con artist. One of his favorite scams, at which he proved surprisingly successful, involved cashing forged cheques at multiple locations in towns he intended to leave. He also had ephebophiliac tendencies, and had molested girls on more than one occasion. Much later we learn that, before murdering the Clutters, Smith prevented Hickcock from raping young Nancy.

The chapter provides neither the circumstances nor the motive. We follow the last quiet moments of the Clutters, and we follow the killers to the Clutter yard. Their

headlights disclosed a lane of Chinese elms; bundles of wind-blown thistle scurried across it. Dick doused the headlights, slowed down, and stopped until his eyes were adjusted to the moon-illuminated night. Presently, the car crept forward (72).
In Cold Blood then shows us the following morning, Sunday, when friends discover the bodies.

II. Persons Unknown

This section chronicles the frustrating investigation, and the fear and paranoia which pervade the town after the murders. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) initially finds few clues. No clear motive suggests itself, and the town experiences its share of rumors. The Clutters have been murdered by persons unknown; initially, nothing more is known.

Meanwhile, those "Persons Unknown" make their way to Mexico, rapidly spending the little money they made from murder and from petty crimes committed en route. Smith believes they will make their score treasure-hunting; this plan proves as successful as one might guess it would be. Unable to sustain their lifestyle, and unwilling to work for Mexico’s low wages, the pair hitchhike back in the United States, hoping to find a driver whom they can rob.

III. Answer

Before November ends, one tip sends the investigation in a new direction, and leads them to Smith and Hickock. The killers themselves provide additional information, and the KBI soon have substantial and damning evidence against both men. Smith and Hickock may have left few clues at the crime scene, but they bracketed their act with a trail that could be followed easily, once one knew where to look.

Hickock and Smith had heard of the Clutters from a fellow convict, a man who once had worked on the Clutter farm. He expressed the belief that Herb Clutter kept significant amounts of money in a safe. This inaccurate claim inspired the crime. Hickcock appears to have planned the murder. He brought in Smith because he apparently believed his claims of criminal bravura. In reality, neither had ever killed anyone, nor could either be considered a master criminal. They were despicable-- and pathetic.

IV. The Corner

This last section takes its name from the nickname inmates have given to the gallows at Lansing, where Smith and Hickock meet their end. This book concludes by narrating the events surrounding the trial and execution of the killers.

Capote ultimately felt some sympathy for Perry Smith, whose life provided him with more obstacles than most of us face. Hickock also may win some small reprieve from the readers' hostility, if only because he faces his death with a courage conspicuously absent from the rest of his life. Despite these facts, and despite Capote’s opposition to the death penalty, In Cold Blood never loses sight of what has happened. However, if one opposes capital punishment on moral grounds, then one must oppose it even for those whose lives seem as pointless and destructive as Smith and Hickock’s. If one believes that something connects all humanity, then we all are connected with the likes of Smith and Hickock.

Capote ends on a bittersweet note; shortly after the death of Smith and Hickock, one of the investigators meets Sue, Nancy Clutter’s best friend, at her gravesite. They speak briefly and then Sue disappears down the path,

a pretty girl in a hurry, her smooth hair swinging, shining—just such a young woman as Nancy might have been. Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.(384).

The disturbing tale has inspired other works. In 1967, Richard Brooks adapted the book into a successful motion picture which used many of the actual locations. Six of the Smith and Hickock’s jurors even play themselves. A less well-known made-for-tv movie appeared in 1996. In 2005, Capote’s years of research and writing were depicted in a film, Capote, and a graphic novel, Capote in Kansas.

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