In Cold Blood was Truman Capote's attempt to create a new genre (the nonfiction novel) in which the drama comes not from the events of the plot, which are known in advance, but in how those events came to pass. The incident Capote dramatized was the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in their home by two ex-cons. It was a sensational story: a highly respected Kansas farmer and his family of four killed for no reason by incompetent criminals who did not even know them. While in prison, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock learned from a fellow inmate that Herb Clutter kept a safe in his farm. After their release, the killers drove out to the Clutter farm in the middle of the night and broke in, brandishing shotguns. They found no safe—Herb Clutter paid his workers by check—but they killed everyone in the house for a score that amounted to $40-$50 in petty cash and personal possessions. Unfortunately for them, the boots they wore and the goods they stole were easily traced, and they were caught within weeks. Found guilty in short order, they were sentenced to die. They would have been hanged within a few months and forgotten for all time had not their tragic and farcical crime caught the attention of a brilliant and ambitious young author.
Capote's novel is reflective of its time in a few ways. First, it echoed the rise of sensational news as entertainment. Edward R. Murrow, the legendary newsman who covered the Blitz and confronted McCarthy during the height of the Red Scare, expressed in a 1958 speech to his fellow journalists his concern that the quest for ratings and advertising revenue were converting television from a medium for education into one devoted to entertainment. The murder of the Clutters was a heartbreaking tragedy, but in comparison to events like the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, it would not have made national news were it not a lurid story.
Additionally, Capote defied traditional journalistic conventions by involving himself in the events he was depicting for the sake of his writing. He brought in lawyers to help Perry Smith and Dick Hickock get a new trial merely so he would have more time before they were executed. He befriended Smith, in particular, in order to gain his trust and cooperation. Once he had his story, Capote cut off correspondence and support for the killers and complained about the appeal process that dragged out their execution because it delayed the publication of the final version of the book. These kinds of unorthodox and, at times, questionable journalistic techniques would become more common in the years to come, particularly in the "Gonzo" journalism of Hunter Thompson.
Most importantly, the Clutter murder was representative of its time in that it was a harbinger of the moral decline in American society that would accelerate through the 1960s. It was the "convergence" of the two worlds that the Clutters and their killers represented which caught Capote's attention in the first place. Capote recognized that these two worlds were destined to confront one another with greater frequency. During the 1950s, in places like rural Kansas, people knew one another, and violent crime was so rare that most families kept their doors unlocked. In the weeks after the murders, Holcomb's citizens locked their doors and kept their lights on because "it could happen again."
Holcomb's innocence was lost. This disillusionment was starting to happen all over the country during the 1950s. In 1955, Jack Gilbert Graham committed the first bombing of a commercial airliner over the farmland of Colorado in order to kill his mother and collect her life insurance. In late 1957 and early 1958, Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend went on a two state killing spree that would claim the lives of 11 people. Just like during the Red Scare, Americans were beginning to regard their neighbors with suspicion. As the stream of spectacular acts of violence accelerated during the 1960s, the sense of safety Americans had once taken for granted would be dispelled throughout the nation.