Although not the first writer to use actual events as a basis for a novel—Theodore Dreiser based the plot of An American Tragedy (1925) on an actual murder case, for example—Truman Capote treats actual events in In Cold Blood in undisguised documentary style. He was first to tout such a work a “nonfiction novel,” calling attention to the relationship between real-life events and the literary techniques used to convey them. Chief among the techniques is the arrangement of events in an order that contrasts the Clutter world with the world of their killers. Capote emphasizes the contrast between these different worlds by alternating between the two, giving the reader scenes and dialogue in a brief section (or session), then shifting to the other world.
The novel’s mystery is not who committed the murders, for with the introduction of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the reader knows who the killers are and whom they kill. The mystery is reflected, instead, in the inability of anyone, including the team of investigators, to discover the identity and motive of the murderers. One of Capote’s impressive achievements is to sustain the reader’s interest in the events, although the crime, its victims, and its perpetrators are known from the very beginning. Capote does so by continuing to contrast the world of Dick and Perry with that of the Clutters, implying by doing so that in an orderly universe these two realms would not intertwine. Harmony between humanity and nature, reflected in the autumn setting at the beginning of the book, is disrupted by the murders. The community is perplexed and frightened; its sense of order is shaken by the inexplicable nature of the crime.
Another of Capote’s achievements is to maintain a degree of independence from the material as he lays it before the reader, thereby creating the illusion of the omniscient narrator. Critics noted that Capote is more interested in Perry than in Dick. Perry’s interior life is given much more attention. Readers learn of Perry’s fantasies of being “Perry O’Parsons,” a singer in the limelight at a Las Vegas showplace. Readers are told of his dreams in which he is swallowed by a huge snake, rescued at the last moment by a big yellow bird, a Christ figure, that wafts him to heaven. His “artistic” and “sensitive” side is showcased in letters from a prison friend, and Capote gives extensive attention to the years of Perry’s troubled childhood and youth, including his difficulties with his father and the motorcycle accident that left him with crippled legs. By comparison, Dick’s character and background are given scant attention, amounting to little more than his passion for “blond chicken” and his conviction that he is “a normal.”
This apparent imbalance in characterization is part of Capote’s thematic control of his material, however, because Perry is the one who cuts Herb Clutter’s throat and shoots each member of the family. Focusing on Perry’s fantasy world and his background addresses the mystery at the heart of the novel: how four members of a family such as the Clutters could have been murdered in cold blood. Who would want to commit such a horrible crime? What could the killer’s motivation be? Capote develops a portrait of the murderer as the product of the murderer’s upbringing, suggesting that bad circumstances can produce bad people.
Citing the opinion of a psychologist who examines Perry, Capote explains that the murders happen because of the relationship between Perry and Dick. Without the other, neither would have murdered. Chance teams Dick with a cellmate who happens to have worked for the Clutters, yet the novel connects events and people in a way that suggests that the Clutter murders were, if not predictable, somehow inevitable. The investigators solve the murder mystery halfway through the novel, but Capote keeps in the reader’s mind from beginning to end the mystery of how, in a larger sense, such evil intrudes into the Clutter world, a world of control, self-discipline, religious faith, and dedication to hard work. The world that Dick and Perry create for themselves subjects them to the authority of others. Feeling victimized, they take revenge by victimizing others. Their only power is violence, and the only order they know is disorder.
Another of the novel’s fictional characteristics is the arrangement of the material so that the murders take on a universal significance. In the Clutter world, one must believe in and adhere to the principles of justice and humanity. One is responsible for one’s actions. God and nature are both just and predictable. The murders seem senseless in this world; one learns that an evil can strike down anyone at any time, and no one can fathom the justice of it all. Capote ends his novel with an image of Al Dewey leaving the graveyard where the Clutters are buried. Behind him is “the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.” Behind him is the mystery that the voices do not explain.