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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.

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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.’”

(The entire section contains 1087 words.)

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Critical Context