In Cold Blood is a romance of the ordinary, a narrative that proceeds from the premise that truth is more compelling than fiction. Capote shows the Clutters to be an exemplary American family—devout Methodists, members of the 4-H Club, happy, productive citizens. He immerses his readers in their quotidian world by crowding his text with details—facts about what Herbert has for breakfast, the configuration of the house, the inventory of crops. Herbert is widely and justifiably respected as an industrious and honest man, and his pretty daughter Nancy would seem to be the perfect high school sweetheart. Perhaps the only element belying the Clutters’ unexceptional wholesomeness is the unaccountable depression from which Herbert’s wife, Bonnie, has suffered over the years.
Holcomb and the Clutters are a challenge to the fanciful and flamboyant Capote, who became famous as the author of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and who had become the pet of high society. Any writer must confront the impossibility of translating experience into language, but Capote’s task was compounded by how alien his banal raw materials seemed to his worldly, baroque sensibility. In Cold Blood is an inevitably flawed exercise in self-effacement. Its title refers as much to the novelist’s efforts at being a taxidermist of reality as to the carnage of the Clutters’ murder. “Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of the newspapers,” says Larry Hendricks, an aspiring writer new to Kansas, and he expresses Capote’s own ambivalence regarding literary invention.
If the subject of In Cold Blood is apprehension—of an unknown horror threatening the normality of Holcomb, of the vagrant malefactors, of the intractable truth— its principal characters are Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. The two had met at the Kansas State Penitentiary, and later it is an urgent message from Hickock to Smith summoning him to a “score” that sets the mechanism of murder into motion. Hickock had learned about Herbert Clutter’s wealth from Floyd Wells, a cellmate who had worked on his River Valley farm, and he dreamed of robbing Clutter when he got out of prison. Hickock was unaware that Clutter paid his bills with checks and never kept cash in the house, so that Hickock and Smith end up with very little booty for all of their bloody business.
Hickock and Smith are approximately the same age—twenty-eight and thirty, respectively—and both are seasoned veterans of scrapes with the law and of incarceration. Close scrutiny, however, reveals differences between the two so dramatic that much of the appeal of In Cold Blood is a study of complementary and polar personalities. Despite, or because of, barely suppressed lust for pubescent girls, Hickock is preoccupied with appearing “normal.” He comes from a relatively stable and supportive family and has been married twice. Hickock does not seem to suffer from the excruciating self-consciousness that plagues the effeminate Smith. To Smith’s admiring eyes, Hickock is extroverted, resourceful, and “manly.” “Dick’s literalness,” the reader is told, “his pragmatic approach to every subject, was the primary reason Perry had been attracted to him, for it made Dick seem, compared to himself, so authentically tough, invulnerable, ‘totally masculine.’”
Hickock recruits Smith as a companion in crime because he recognizes in the other man the kind of ruthless killer he could never be. Smith is the victim of a loveless, broken home, of painful experiences in an orphanage, and of a motorcycle accident that has left him clumsy and disfigured. Smith is a social misfit diagnosed by a court-appointed psychiatrist as a paranoid schizophrenic. Hickock, a skilled auto mechanic, prides himself on his practicality, while Smith is a dreamer who fantasizes about prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre.
Capote appears more sympathetic to Smith than to Hickock, perhaps because he recognizes a kindred spirit in the diminutive outcast with an ornate vocabulary (Smith is, for example, fond of the word “ineffable”). Hickock mocks Smith’s lavish experiments in music and poetry, but Capote records them solicitously. Yet In Cold Blood, which purges Capote’s manneristic style of its usual embellishments, seems to identify utilitarian prose with truth and poetry with contrivance. The “nonfiction novel” derives much of its power from the tension between Hickock and Smith and from corollary dichotomies between reality and fantasy, masculine and feminine, plain and gaudy.
Asked by one of the arresting officers why he has fallen back into a life of crime, Hickock replies: “That would make a book.” The lengthy and meticulous research that Capote undertook in order to put together that book also makes him alter ego to Alvin Dewey, the leader of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation team assembled to solve the homicides. A friend of Herbert Clutter and, like the slain man, an exemplary Midwestern citizen, Dewey becomes obsessed with solving the puzzle of who killed the Clutters and why. He returns alone again and again to the empty Clutter house to ponder the mystery. He patiently sifts through a vast amount of information until he, like Capote, is able to construct a coherent narrative. A major break comes with a tip from Floyd Wells, who, while still in prison, hears of the Clutter atrocities and informs the warden of his conversations with Hickock. Dewey’s team tracks down Hickock and Smith, who have been crisscrossing the country on a spree of petty crime, and brings them back to Garden City, Kansas, for trial.
Capote assimilates court transcripts, interviews, newspaper accounts, and his own observations, constructing an account of the Holcomb massacres that seems innocent of construction, merely “a true account.” It is a powerful story of inexorable crime and punishment, even more powerful for underscoring the reader’s awareness that this is reality, not literature. Clearly, however, though he pretends to enter the minds of his characters and to deny his own presence, the author is always there, all the way to the final lines: The case is now closed, and fifty-one-year-old Dewey is walking pensively through the cemetery where the Clutter family is buried. In an echo of its opening paragraphs, which had described the enigmatic austerity of the bleak Midwestern plains, a landscape that is intriguing to the flamboyant author from New York, In Cold Blood concludes with a reference to “the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.” The reader might note the alliteration and the carefully balanced cadences, but he is also convinced that that is the way it was.
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in Cold Blood Questions 1) In Cold Blood is a non-fiction novel, but how is it more like journalism than an ordinary work of fiction? Truman Capote wrote the book in brief sections, setting the scene and then putting a break in the narrative, the way the book is structured with several plotlines happening at the same time it keeps the reader on edge, giving it a classic crime-genre technique to always keep the reader in suspense. On top of this he pays close attention to the setting around the dialogue, producing powerful imagery for the reader.
The dialogue is factual, which reduces Capotes’ personal involvement, and with the descriptive, tense paragraphs, to heighten suspense. In the book we see two of the main characters, Dick and Perry, their interests and family background which we can see Capotes’ journalism through his reporting. In an interview for the New York Times in 1966, Capote said, “It seemed to me that journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form: the ‘nonfiction novel,’ as I thought of it …
Journalism is the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums,” 2) In what ways does Capote reveal the nature of his research through the construction of the book? In Cold Blood takes a unique view on a horrific story, and gives a non-biased opinion, by looking into the minds of the people involved. In Capotes’ research he found that his background was surprisingly close to one of the man characters, Perry Smith, with both the author and the character both ridiculed as children.
Though we can see that the author doesn’t forgive Perry, we can see Capotes’ sympathy. Capote knew how powerful suspense can be, and he used this to the full potential. With the clutter bodies being found at the house twice, with a quote that spans six pages. Also when Perry Smith makes his confession, 200 pages later, there is another quote that spans several pages, with the quote broken up only when he was interrupted by the questioner. ) How does Capote colour the opening section of the book with a sense of impending murder and doom? What does this tell you about the book’s relationship to journalism?? With the opening chapter being named “the Last To See Them Alive” We can immediately see that murder is about to take place. Also when Capote starts describing the characters he keeps referring to the Clutter family’s day as their last. This gives us the impending idea that the reader is aware of what happens from the opening chapter.
With the murder case being a true story that happened a long time ago, the author assumes that the reader will know the story before they’ve read the book. Thus Capote builds up tension and emphasises the upcoming deaths. With most current news stories being repeated many times, journalists try and find a new angle to keep the story fresh, we can see that Capote has tried to do this in his novel, to take a news story that people have heard before and try and adapt it to keep the reader interested.
Author: Brandon Johnson
In Cold Blood Essay Questions
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