In Cold Blood Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In Cold Blood

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, 1959, 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, 1960, 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, 1965.

In Cold Blood Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Cold Blood was created as a work of deliberate literary experiment. Having written extensive journalistic coverage in his account of an opera company’s tour of the Soviet Union (The Muses Are Heard) and in various travel writing, Capote desired to combine the reportorial techniques of journalism—the gathering of detailed factual material by observation and interviewing—with the narrative and dramatic scene devices of fiction. The grisly, senseless murders of a Kansas farm family (Herbert W. Clutter, his wife, and two children) on November 15, 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas, provided the opportunity for the writer to try his experiment.

In Cold Blood is a documented record of those murders, but it is also a documentation of the backgrounds, motives, attitudes, and perspectives of hundreds of local townspeople as well as those of the two killers, ex-convicts Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Smith, who are arrested eventually for the crime, tried, and executed. Shortly after the crime was committed, Capote went to Kansas to begin the massive accumulation of material that forms the substance of the book. At the outset, the murders were baffling because of the lack of any apparent motive for the slayings. There also were few clues.

Initially Capote envisioned his work as a short one in which he would explore the background of the murders and the reaction of the town to them. With the discovery, capture, and confession of the two killers, however, Capote’s concept changed focus and became not only a study of the crime and its impact on the local community but also an investigation into the lives and motives of the two killers. While describing present action—the arrest, incarceration, trial, and conviction, then the appeals process. and finally the execution by hanging in Lansing, Kansas, in 1965—Capote also delves back into the murderers’ past—their families, aspirations, and personal defeats. Writing the book took more than six years.

The organization of the material was ingeniously handled. Capote once said he had taken more than six thousand pages of notes. The book has four sections, all of which offer the reader shifts in time and place, rather like the cinematic technique of parallel editing, thus allowing the reader to experience simultaneous events with different persons in different locales. The four sections are titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” “Persons Unknown,” “Answer,” and “The Corner.” In the first section, Capote traces the members of the Clutter family through their activities on the last day of their lives, going through their routine in remarkable detail (even clothing is noted, as is music heard on the radio.)

While following the family, Capote also allows the readers to follow the ongoing progress of the two killers, Dick and Perry, as they move inexorably toward their victims in Kansas. The shifts between the killers’ activities and those of their intended victims come to seem as fatalistic as Greek tragedy, and they add to the sense of tension and suspense (even though the reader is aware of the outcome of the impending meeting). Capote further heightens the reader’s sense of dramatic anticipation by having section 1 end with the discovery of the bodies by local people. He carefully withholds the actual murder scenes until much later in the work; once the killers have been captured, the murder scenes are revealed in their confessions.

Part 2 catalogs the investigation of the crimes and the town’s reaction to them. Against the ongoing investigation, the reader also follows the travels of Dick and Perry as they flee from Kansas—first to Mexico, later to Florida, and eventually back to Texas. As the authorities try to find leads to what seems a motiveless act, the reader sees the murderers as they fish, drink, and go to beaches. Capote also begins to introduce background information about the killers. A letter by Perry’s father is included, as are a letter from Perry’s sister written to him in prison and another convict’s lengthy commentary on her letter. These revelations are juxtaposed against the frustration of investigator Alvin Dewey as he tries to find leads in the case.

Part 3, “Answer,” brings the break in the case: A convict in prison reveals that Dick Hickock once told him of a plan to rob the Clutter household and leave no witnesses. As the net draws slowly about the killers after that revelation, the reader is given a sadly humorous episode in which a young boy and his ailing grandfather are given a ride by the murderers. The meeting of the open, honest, good-natured child with the killers is an example of how Capote has skillfully manipulated his material for maximum ironic effect. The killers join with the boy in a game to find empty soft-drink bottles in the barren Texas countryside.

Part 4 deals with events after Dick and Perry’s arrest: their trial and conviction, the innumerable appeals in the courts as they seek to avoid execution, and, finally, their deaths by hanging in the Kansas State Penitentiary. Of particular interest in this section of the book is Capote’s study of Dick and Perry’s time on death row and his look at the lives of others who were death-row prisoners at the same time.

Capote’s book does not end with the hanging of Dick and Perry; instead, there is a tranquil scene back in Holcomb, at the cemetery where the Clutter family is buried. Detective Alvin Dewey visits the graves and, while there, meets a young girlfriend of the Clutter girl. Their talk is routine—about school, college plans, marriages, hopes, aspirations, ambitions, the stuff of everyday life. These are exactly the details of routine life that have been denied the Clutter family and, indeed, their killers, by the tragic turns that fate works in people’s lives. With the contrast between retribution and innocent hope, the book’s final irony is eloquently achieved.

In Cold Blood Summary

Part 1 Summary - The Last to See Them Alive

The first part of In Cold Blood establishes the Clutter family and the duo of Hickock and Smith on two different, but inevitably...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Part 2 Summary - Persons Unknown

Four close friends of Herb Clutter arrive at the house to clean up the scene and burn the tainted clothing and furnishings. Eighteen Kansas...

(The entire section is 560 words.)

Part 3 Summary - The Answer

On a tip from a former cellmate of Hickock' s, Floyd Wells, Smith and Hickock become the prime suspects. Wells had once worked for Herb...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Part 4 Summary - The Corner

Smith and Hickock are kept in separate cells of the county prison. Smith wants to amend Hickock's confession to state that he, Smith, killed...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

In Cold Blood Chapter Summaries

Part 1, Chapters 1-4 Summary

In November 1959, the village of Holcomb, Kansas, sits quietly on the far western Plains. With remnants of business long gone, Holcomb now sees prosperity through the natural gas industry rather than farming and ranching, which are more risky. Outwardly, it seems a rapidly diminishing community, but its stability is seen in its newly constructed school building and the rich furnishings of the unprepossessing one-story homes. Holcomb is seemingly invisible to the rest of the state and country, but it will come to prominence as four gunshots ring out on a cold Sunday morning that will eventually claim the lives of six people.

Herbert Clutter, a forty-eight-year-old rancher, awakens on Saturday to the day’s work. He was...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 5-8 Summary

Dick pulls up in his car and Perry jumps in, making sure his guitar is still in the back seat from the night before. He sees a shotgun along with an assortment of other hunting gear. Dick explains that, if stopped, they will pretend to be hunters who have become lost and need directions. Dick is wearing coveralls from his job at a body shop. He and Perry proceed to do some maintenance on the car in preparation for their trip. Dick explains that he was late because his father gave him a hard time after he explained that he and Perry were going to Fort Scott to visit Perry’s sister. Perry says he thinks Dick’s mother is a “real sweet person,” and Dick agrees.

Nancy Clutter helps thirteen-year-old Jolene bake a...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 9-15 Summary

Dick and Perry stop in Emporia to buy more supplies. They try to find some black stockings but have no success. They buy rope, thinking there might be as many as twelve people to deal with.

Kenyon Clutter is more like his mother than his father. He has only one friend, from whom he has become somewhat distanced due to the latter’s newfound interest in girls. Mr. Helm, the housekeeper’s husband, asks Kenyon who is talking with Mr. Clutter. Kenyon assumes it is Mr. Johnson, the insurance salesman. Nancy comes riding up on Babe the horse. Kenyon used to have his own horse, but he rode it to death the year before. Nancy and Kenyon talk about Tracy, their nephew. They hope he will be able to talk by the big Thanksgiving...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 16-22 Summary

Nancy’s bedroom is decorated in a feminine mode of pink, blue, and white. It is personalized with mementos and photographs. Her diary records major events in her life for the past four years.

Dick and Perry reach Holcomb and drive up to the Clutter home.

On Sunday morning, Nancy Ewalt (a friend of Nancy Clutter’s) arrives at the Clutter home. Her father dropped her off so she could go to church with the Clutter family. There is no response at any of the four doors. Disturbed, Nancy goes to Susan Kidwell’s home, and the two return to the Clutters. They go upstairs and find Nancy lying on her bed with blood splattering the wall. The girls run out, hysterical, and Nancy Ewalt’s father calls the police....

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 1-4 Summary

A group of Herb Clutter’s hunting companions arrive at the Clutter home with a grim mission: to clean up the traces of the grisly murder. Alfred Stoecklein, who worked for the Clutters and lived not a hundred yards from the main house, lets them in. He has to keep explaining that he could not have heard the gunshots because of the wind and also because of the barn situated between his house and the Clutters’. The men burn the couch, mattresses, pillows, and other items that have been soaked in blood. They feel shock that a man they knew well has been the victim of such a ghastly crime.

Alvin Dewey is put in charge of the investigation. Having served in the Kansas Bureau of Investigation for several years, Dewey knew...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 5-10 Summary

Susan Kidwell explains that she and Nancy Clutter were like sisters. She does not go to school until after the funeral. Neither does Bobby Rupp. He and Susan spend time grieving together; Bobby swears that he will never love another girl. The two of them go to the funeral home for the viewing. They see the four open caskets. Each head is completely wrapped in cotton. Susan sees that Nancy is in a dress for which she had helped pick out the material. She is overcome and rushes out and waits for Bobby. All she can think about is Nancy in that red velvet dress.

Perry reads the account of the Clutter funeral in the Kansas City Star. Over a thousand people attended, which impresses Perry. He and Dick pass bad checks in...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 11-14 Summary

Perry still ponders the possibility that there is something “not right” about him and Dick. Though Dick claims to be normal, Perry keeps remembering the sounds of the Clutters’ begging. He relives the murder as Dick forgets about it. Perry wonders about his family. One of his sisters has lived a “normal” life, but his other sister jumped out of a window and his brother drove his wife to suicide and then took his own life. Perry had told Dick at their first meeting that he had killed a Black man named King. He said they both lived in a boarding house in Las Vegas. Perry had invited King to go for a ride and then beaten him to death with a chain. This story, however, was untrue; Perry never killed anyone. As they drive...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Part 2, Chapter 15 Summary

Perry and Dick are in a motel room in Mexico City. They are almost completely broke. As Perry predicted, Dick spent most of the money from selling the car on women. Dick tries to get a job but is disgusted that the wages in Mexico are so low. He wants to get bus tickets back to the United States. Although Perry could stay in Mexico alone, he refuses to leave Dick, thinking that somehow things will work out if the two of them are together. He is upset that he must leave most of his possessions behind; they will most likely be hitchhiking a good part of the way.

Perry thinks about a letter from his father to the parole board, entitled “A History of My Boy’s Life,” that explains Perry’s boyhood. His mother decided...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 16-18 Summary

On a Saturday in December, Alvin Dewey observes all the Christmas decorations around town and realizes that he has not bought a single gift yet because he has been so focused on the Clutter case. His friends and family are beginning to worry that it has become an obsession. His biggest fear, however, is that it will remain an unsolved case and will continue to haunt him; he will be always checking for more clues.

Dewey remembers to pick up the family cat at the veterinarian’s office. He stops at the Hartman Café, where Mrs. Hartman notices that he has lost twenty pounds in the past three weeks, which gives him a cadaverous appearance. One of the other customers berates him for not catching the murderer yet. He asks...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 1-4 Summary

Floyd Wells lies in the Kansas State Penitentiary, where he is serving three to five years for robbery. He listens to the radio and is shocked when he hears about the murder of the Clutter family two days previously. Not only does he know the Clutter family, but he knows who killed them. Wells had worked for Herb Clutter eleven years before as a farm hand for about a year. At the end of that time, Wells moved on, but not because of any trouble with Mr. Clutter. In fact, he liked the entire Clutter family, thinking them one of the nicest families he had ever met. In Lansing prison, Wells met Dick Hickock, sharing the same cell with him for about a month. He told Dick about his past, and Dick seemed especially interested in his time...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 5-8 Summary

Detective Harold Nye travels to Las Vegas and interviews a boarding house manager. Nye was able to track Perry Smith to this address. He now questions the manager about her former boarder. He tells her that Perry was in violation of his parole, but she does not believe his lie. She still has a box of belongings Perry left in her care. When they examine it, they find very little except odds and ends, a scrapbook containing pictures of weightlifters, and numerous bottles of aspirin. The next day, Nye goes in search of Perry’s father, Tex John Smith, but he has gone to Alaska. The post office clerk only knows that Smith used to be with the rodeo and dressed the part. He describes Perry from the one time he came to visit his father....

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 9-12 Summary

In a Kansas City laundromat, Perry is washing clothes while Dick is out passing bad checks. Perry begins to worry that Dick has been caught; perhaps someone has realized the checks are bad, or perhaps he has been stopped for a minor traffic violation during which it was discovered that the car is stolen. He imagines the police soon arriving at the laundromat to arrest him. His legs begin to ache and he becomes sick to his stomach from the pain and the fear. When he goes outside, Dick arrives and kids him for being worried. He had some luck passing checks; he even got an old friend to cash one for him. They are heading for Florida that night.

Alvin Dewey has a nightmare in which he is chasing Dick and Perry. He corners...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 13-18 Summary

Bobby Rupp walks among Mr. Clutter’s fruit trees and notices that the place is already seeing the decay of neglect. He visits Babe, Nancy’s horse, which remains in the barn.

Perry and Dick pick up a pair of hitchhikers in Texas, a boy and his sickly grandfather who are on their way to Sweetwater. The boy suggests that they stop and pick up some pop bottles to turn in for refund money. They garner over twelve dollars, and the four of them stop at a diner for a decent meal. Dick tells the boy that Sweetwater is a hundred miles in a different direction from where they are going. Perry realizes this means Dick is tired of the pair and wants to get rid of them.

On December 30, Alvin Dewey is elated. He has...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 19-24 Summary

Perry’s story is vague; he feels too shaken to remember the details of what he and Dick had decided to say should they ever get caught. Alone in his cell, he worries that Dick will break and tell everything. That afternoon, in another round of questioning, Perry admits that the story of going to Fort Scott was a lie to fool Dick’s parents, who did not want him to leave town and break parole. Dick breaks and says Perry killed the Clutters. He passes out as he leaves the cell.

The people of Holcomb feel relief when they hear news of the arrest. They wait for the return of the prisoners, who are being driven back from Nevada.

In the car, Perry gives his account of what happened. As they drove up to the...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 1-4 Summary

At the Finney County Courthouse, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are placed in cells far enough apart that they are not able to communicate with each other. Perry is in what is known as the “ladies cell,” where female prisoners are kept. It is located within the apartment of the undersheriff and his wife, Wendle and Josie Meier. The cell is attached to the kitchen, so Mrs. Meier comes to know Perry well as she cooks. He strikes her as a pleasant young man—until her husband points out that he brutally killed four people and would be likely to do the same to her. Although many people expected a mob to form, the townspeople of Garden City show only intense curiosity.

Over the next few months, the snow falls almost every...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 5-7 Summary

The trial is set for March 22, 1960. Perry’s and Dick’s attorneys discuss requesting a change of venue because the emotions of Garden City are so high, but they decide against it because this is a religious community and the city’s ministers are mostly against capital punishment. The lawyers tell their clients that at this point they are focused on saving their lives, not acquittal. They also request psychological evaluations at the state hospital in Larned, which will take from four to eight weeks. Judge Tate, who will sit on the bench for their trial, is known to dislike attempts to focus on the criminals rather than on their victims. He allows local psychiatrists to talk to Perry and Dick; they are found to be sane and...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 8-11 Summary

When the trial starts, there are several visitors present who are connected to Perry and Dick. Mr. and Mrs. Hickock are present, as is Donald Cullivan, the man Perry knew in the army and with whom he has been corresponding. The only person from the Clutter family is Herb Clutter’s brother, Arthur. He glares at Perry, who looks at Arthur Clutter, recognizes the family resemblance, is shaken momentarily, and then looks away.

Nancy Ewalt and Susan Kidwell are called as the first witnesses. The other people who saw the crime scene the day of the murder are also present. The defense does not cross-examine. When the crime scene photographs are shown to the jury, Mr. Hickock mutters that this is not a fair trial. The defense...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 12-15 Summary

Although the more influential and wealthy citizens of Garden City have not attended to trial, many decide to come on the day of the closing arguments. Many out-of-town visitors, especially lawyers, are also seated in the courtroom on the last day. The defense attorney pleads not for acquittal but for mercy, calling the death penalty a relic of barbarism and out of character with a Christian community. The prosecutor, however, states that murder is to be punished by death and supports this with quotations from the Bible. He repeats the order of the killings, that Kenyon had to wait in sight of his father’s murder, Nancy’s pleading, and Mrs. Clutter’s suffering as she listened to her family being systematically destroyed. He...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 16-18 Summary

Perry and Dick are scheduled to be executed on May 13, 1961, but are granted a stay of execution pending the outcome of an appeal for a new trial with different lawyers. Lowell Lee Andrews is awaiting a similar verdict. Perry and Dick barely speak to each other. Andrews frequently corrects Perry’s grammar, which irritates Perry because he saw himself as an expert on the English language. After one incident of being corrected by Andrews, Perry goes on a hunger strike. After not eating for five days, Perry is transferred to a state hospital where he is force-fed. Over the next nine weeks, Perry loses more than fifty pounds. Dick is not impressed even when it is reported that Perry is in a coma; he proclaims that Perry is faking it....

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Part 4, Chapters 19-22 Summary

Within the American justice system, there are several avenues of appeal in capital cases, which may drag out the length of time between sentencing and execution. Lowell Lee Andrews’s case goes through appeals several times before he is executed on November 30, 1962. He takes nineteen minutes to die after the trap door falls and his neck breaks. Perry, Dick, and the two soldiers listen through their cell windows and comment on the nonchalance Andrews shows on his way to his execution. Dick has been given a portion of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” though he does not know for sure if Andrews wrote it or copied it. Dick comments that Andrews knew a lot of information from books but nothing from real life....

(The entire section is 482 words.)

Michael Foster, Ed. Scott Locklear