In Cold Blood Analysis

In Cold Blood (American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

Originally published as a four-part article in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood had made Truman Capote a millionaire and a national celebrity even before the book’s highly touted publication. Capote was fascinated by the mystery of the brutal, seemingly unmotivated 1959 murders of respected, prosperous Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and their two teen-age children, Nancy and Kenyon. Encouraged by New Yorker editor William Shawn, Capote followed the case for years, living in Kansas much of the time, interviewing scores of people (at first accompanied by his friend, the novelist Harper Lee), and eventually becoming confidant to Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the two men convicted of the murders, as they waited on death row during a series of appeals. Capote became especially close to Smith, whose lonely childhood, physical self-consciousness, and artistic aspirations resonated with the writer. Published serially just months after the executions of Smith and Hickock, Capote’s project had accumulated unprecedented interest, partly because of its sensational subject matter but also because of Capote’s established literary reputation, his personal flamboyance, and his widely publicized claims that he was creating a paradoxical new literary form, the nonfiction novel. In 1967, Pax Enterprises/Columbia produced a film adaptation of In Cold Blood that closely follows Capote’s narrative design, his interest in the psychological makeup of the criminals (especially Smith), and his commitment to realism (director Richard Brooks even staged the murder scene at the Clutter’s home). However, the film omits much of Capote’s close, almost anthropological attention to the Clutter family’s small-town life, focusing instead on the flight and subsequent capture, trial, and execution of Hickock and Smith. As in the novel, the film waits until deep into the narrative to present the Clutter murders, which are “recalled” by Smith as a testimonial flashback. In contrast to Capote’s subtle rhetorical stance, Brooks adds the character of a reporter, who operates as the film’s conscience, questioning the morality of capital punishment, thus making explicit the implied irony of the title.

Impact

Although described as nonfiction on trade lists, In Cold Blood won the 1966 Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award. Capote’s precise methods would be almost impossible to replicate—he claimed a self-taught ability to recall and thus transcribe, with nearly perfect accuracy, hours of interview material and insisted that he had constructed his novel exclusively from observed or recorded detail—but his interest in blurred genres was shared by other novelists, journalists, and filmmakers committed to exploring American social life in new ways. Capote’s aggressive self-promotion and extravagant literary claims fostered a situation in which the use of fictional techniques in nonfiction forms and the ethics of making art (and money) from murder could be debated. The strong sense of “two Americas” that characterized In Cold Blood became emblematic of an increasingly polarized nation, split apart by suspicion, intolerance, and violence.

The film version of In Cold Blood was more revision than experiment, a solid, capably produced studio film in content reminiscent of the earnest social problem films of the 1950’s, driven by psychological explanation and liberal argument (in this case, against capital punishment), and in form characterized by moody, highly stylized black-and- white photography evocative of 1940’s film noir. Although sufficiently admired to have been nominated for four major Academy Awards—Brooks, for both Director and Original Screenplay; Conrad Hall, for Cinematography and Quincy Jones, for Original Musical Score—the film received none and was overshadowed in 1967 by another story of a criminal couple loosely based on fact: the more popular, more violent, more radical, and thus far more controversial Bonnie and Clyde. In Cold Blood did launch the careers of a pair of talented, previously unknown young actors, Scott Wilson (Hickock) and Robert Blake (Smith), who portrayed, with sensitivity and imagination, the two damaged, ruthless men who intrigued Capote and much of the nation in the mid-1960’s.

Related Work

In Armies of the Night (1968), Norman Mailer offers his version of a fact-based literary experiment, labeling the form novel-as-history, history-as-novel. Although personally antagonistic and publicly dismissive of each other’s work, Mailer and Capote nevertheless shared many goals.

Bibliography

Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography, 1988.

Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Chiefly valuable as a survey, almost a paraphrase, of Capote’s literary works, including In Cold Blood, prefaced by a brief look at Capote’s life.

Hollowell, John. Fact and Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, 1977.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Truman Capote: Conversations, 1987.

Malin, Irving, ed. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”: A Critical Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1968. A compendium of articles that focuses on In Cold Blood and critical reaction to the novel. Includes articles that place In Cold Blood in the context of Capote’s other works. Of special interest is George Plimpton’s interview with Capote; the interview gives excellent perspective to Capote’s novel and literary intent, his relationship to the events and people in the book, and how he worked the material into what he calls a “nonfiction novel.”

Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1970. Two chapters are devoted to In Cold Blood, the first chapter placing the novel in Capote’s career, the second chapter offering a critical study of the novel.

Reed, Kenneth T. Truman Capote. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Surveys Capote’s short fiction, novels, and efforts at reportage, which include work on In Cold Blood. Reed ends with a study of Capote’s style, his themes, and the influences on his writing.

Stanton, Robert J. Truman Capote: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Very helpful annotations accompany the lists of works about Capote and his writings. Extremely thorough.

Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud. The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, 1976.

In Cold Blood Form and Content (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

On November 16, 1959, the bloody corpses of Herbert, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter were discovered in their Holcomb, Kansas, farmhouse. Herbert Clutter had been a prominent and prosperous member of that rural community, and the gruesome murders of the upstanding Methodist farmer, his wife, and two of their four children shocked the Midwest. It was a crime without any apparent motive, and it was not until January that the murderers, two parolees named Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested.

Truman Capote, renowned for his Southern gothic fiction and for his eccentric personality, read about the Clutter massacre in New York and determined to write about it. Commissioned by The New Yorker and Random House to report on the case, he was in Kansas within a few days of the murders, trying to learn as much as he could about the victims, the crime, the criminals, and the larger social and legal context into which the events fit. Capote stayed with the story for five and a half years—through the apprehension of the killers, their trial, and their execution. He conducted extensive interviews with a wide variety of people connected, however remotely, with the case. By the time he began writing, he had accumulated six thousand pages of notes.

The result was In Cold Blood, a book that Capote labeled with the oxymoron “nonfiction novel” and to which he gave the subtitle A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. In Cold Blood was published in January, 1966, less than nine months after Smith and Hickock were hanged. The following year, it was adapted for film by director Richard Brooks. Capote’s book became an enormous commercial and critical success, remaining on the best-seller list for more than a year and inspiring the devotion of scholars and imitators, who hailed it as a classic in a new hybrid genre of narrative (later labeled “New Journalism” by Tom Wolfe) that joined the formal satisfactions of fiction with the urgency of actuality. It remains Capote’s major achievement as a writer.

In Cold Blood begins by setting the stage on the high, bare plains of western Kansas. Almost in the manner of Greek tragedy, it crosscuts between the activities of the Clutters and of the two parolees until they converge, inevitably and violently. The book is organized into four sections: “The Last to See Them Alive” recounts the crime itself; “Persons Unknown” juxtaposes the frustrated investigators and the extensive travels of the murderers across the United States and into Mexico; “Answer” relates how Smith and Hickock are finally apprehended; and “The Corner,” which functions as a narrative coda, summarizes the trial, imprisonment, and execution of the two killers. While it offers the shape and textures of a nineteenth century naturalistic novel, In Cold Blood presents itself with the authority of a “true account,” susceptible to verification by sources outside the author’s fertile imagination.

In Cold Blood Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Garden City

*Garden City. Seat of Kansas’s Finney County on the high wheat plains of Western Kansas. Here upright Herbert Clutter headed the building committee for the newly completed First Methodist Church. Capote reminds his reader that they are in “the ‘Bible Belt,’ that gospel-haunted strip of American territory in which a man must, if only for business reasons, take his religion with the straightest of faces.” This idyllic setting has caused many readers to believe Capote’s book is evoking the Christian story of the Fall in the Garden (City) of Eden, with Hickock and Smith as the snakes, that is, as infiltrating evil.

*Holcomb

*Holcomb. Village of 270 people near Garden City, outside of which the Clutters reside on River Valley Farm, a spread of eight hundred acres owned outright by Herbert Clutter, with three thousand more acres farmed on a rental basis. Clutter calls the river valley “Eden on earth.”

Open Road

Open Road. In Cold Blood is structured in four sections, and the central two—“Persons Unknown” and “Answer”—detail Hickock and Smith’s flight following the Clutter murders and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s pursuit of the men across the United States and into Mexico. During his six years of research, Capote retraced every step of the killers’ seven-thousand-mile flight, beginning in Kansas City, where Hickock bounces bank checks, and moving through Oklahoma, Texas, Mexico, California’s Mojave Desert, Nevada, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, back to Kansas City (where Hickock writes more bad checks), Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and through Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada, where they are arrested in Las Vegas on December 30 and returned to the Garden City jail. Capote’s treatment of Hickock and Smith’s hapless and circuitous flight seems to imply the end of America’s open road as a symbol of escape and new beginning.

*Leavenworth Penitentiary

*Leavenworth Penitentiary. Kansas prison in whose “Death Row” Smith and Hickock are held following their conviction for the Clutter murders. Death Row is “a dark two-storied building shaped like a coffin” from which Smith and Hickock can view the execution chamber, called “the corner.” In titling the novel’s final section “The Corner,” Capote alludes to this literal place name, yet he also implies that Smith and Hickock are “cornered,” trapped by a criminal justice system that refuses to accept the psychological testimony of the two men, a system of capital punishment that murders Smith and Hickock “in cold blood.”

*Kansas

*Kansas. Capote states in the opening lines of his volume that “the village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” He goes on to say that “the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far Western than Middle West.” This opening and many other details have spurred some readers to interpret this novel as a reverse Western, that is, a tale of Indian revenge, for Perry Smith is half Cherokee. However one reads the novel, one is left with the author’s final haunting image of “the big sky, [and] the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”

In Cold Blood Historical Context

National Anxiety
In the 1950s, with the start of the Korean War and Senator McCarthy's purging of Communists from all areas of...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

In Cold Blood Literary Style

Foreshadowing
Capote points out fatalistic and ominous clues from the Clutters' last days. The Bible next to Bonnie Clutter's...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

In Cold Blood Literary Techniques

The most obvious technique in In Cold Blood is the journalistic one. After his first fiction was published Capote turned to journalism...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

In Cold Blood Social Concerns

Some would say that Capote's novel had no social concerns, that it succeeded in being a mere presentation of gruesome facts. There is ample...

(The entire section is 291 words.)

In Cold Blood Compare and Contrast

1960s: The United States Supreme Court strikes down capital punishment laws as unconstitutional; a national moratorium on executions...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

In Cold Blood Topics for Further Study

Research the evolution of the insanity plea, from the ancient M'Naughten Rule to the Durham Test, the Irresistible Impulse Test, and today's...

(The entire section is 296 words.)

In Cold Blood Literary Precedents

Capote would have said there were no literary precedents for his book. AH his life he felt he had not been given his due for inventing a new...

(The entire section is 240 words.)

In Cold Blood Adaptations

In his 1967 adaptation of In Cold Blood for the screen, director Peter Brooks tried to attain the hyperrealism of the book by actually...

(The entire section is 157 words.)

In Cold Blood Media Adaptations

In Cold Blood is the 1967 feature film, written and directed by Richard Brooks and starring two unknowns, Robert Blake and Scott...

(The entire section is 166 words.)

In Cold Blood What Do I Read Next?

Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb (1997), published in 1997 by Bernard Lefkowitz, tells the...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

In Cold Blood Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Baughman, Ronald, ‘‘Literary Perspectives on Murder,’’ in ALSA Forum, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1982.

...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

In Cold Blood Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography, 1988.

Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. Chiefly valuable as a survey, almost a paraphrase, of Capote’s literary works, including In Cold Blood, prefaced by a brief look at Capote’s life.

Hollowell, John. Fact and Fiction: The New Journalism and the Nonfiction Novel, 1977.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Truman Capote: Conversations, 1987.

Malin, Irving, ed. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”: A Critical Handbook. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1968. A compendium of articles that focuses on In Cold Blood and critical reaction to the novel. Includes articles that place In Cold Blood in the context of Capote’s other works. Of special interest is George Plimpton’s interview with Capote; the interview gives excellent perspective to Capote’s novel and literary intent, his relationship to the events and people in the book, and how he worked the material into what he calls a “nonfiction novel.”

Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein and Day, 1970. Two chapters are devoted to In Cold Blood, the first chapter placing the novel in Capote’s career, the second chapter offering a critical study of the novel.

Reed, Kenneth T. Truman Capote. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Surveys Capote’s short fiction, novels, and efforts at reportage, which include work on In Cold Blood. Reed ends with a study of Capote’s style, his themes, and the influences on his writing.

Stanton, Robert J. Truman Capote: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. Very helpful annotations accompany the lists of works about Capote and his writings. Extremely thorough.

Zavarzadeh, Mas’ud. The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel, 1976.