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 born a farmer’s son, and he rose through a college education to the offices of the agricultural industry in western Kansas and even served on a national level. His wife, Bonnie, has psychiatric difficulties that she has recently been told are the result of a misplaced vertebra and is expecting to have surgery. Two older daughters are no longer living at home—one is married with a small baby and the other is in nursing school in Kansas City. Living at home are fifteen-year-old Kenyon and sixteen-year-old Nancy. Clutter is worried about his youngest daughter, who was out the night before until 2:00 a.m. with her boyfriend, Bobby. Mr. Clutter does not approve of her relationship with Bobby, who is Catholic, and has told Nancy to begin to break it off. This morning, Mr. Clutter meets with his farmhand; he agrees to let him have the morning off to care for a sick child.

In the Little Jewel Café in Olathe, Kansas (on the other side of the state), Perry waits for his partner, Dick. As he waits, Perry looks at maps, especially one of Mexico. He dreams of going treasure hunting like in the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Dick always points out the untimely end of the gold hunters in that movie. Perry, whose physical features are due more to his Cherokee mother than to his Irish father, longs to go deep-sea diving. Dick is half an hour late when he finally shows up.

Mrs. Katz calls the Clutter home on Saturday morning to ask Nancy if she will help her daughter make a cherry pie. Nancy’s schedule is full, as usual, but she cancels her plans to attend a 4-H meeting with her father and agrees. Her best friend, Susan, calls; the two girls discuss Nancy’s boyfriend, Bobby, and her father’s insistence that she break up with him. Nancy also tells Susan the good news about her mother. Nancy is worried because she often smells cigarette smoke although no one in the house smokes or is even allowed to do so.