In Cold Blood was created as a work of deliberate literary experiment. Having written extensive journalistic coverage in his account of an opera company’s tour of the Soviet Union (The Muses Are Heard) and in various travel writing, Capote desired to combine the reportorial techniques of journalism—the gathering of detailed factual material by observation and interviewing—with the narrative and dramatic scene devices of fiction. The grisly, senseless murders of a Kansas farm family (Herbert W. Clutter, his wife, and two children) on November 15, 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas, provided the opportunity for the writer to try his experiment.
In Cold Blood is a documented record of those murders, but it is also a documentation of the backgrounds, motives, attitudes, and perspectives of hundreds of local townspeople as well as those of the two killers, ex-convicts Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Smith, who are arrested eventually for the crime, tried, and executed. Shortly after the crime was committed, Capote went to Kansas to begin the massive accumulation of material that forms the substance of the book. At the outset, the murders were baffling because of the lack of any apparent motive for the slayings. There also were few clues.
Initially Capote envisioned his work as a short one in which he would explore the background of the murders and the reaction of the town to them. With the discovery, capture, and confession of the two killers, however, Capote’s concept changed focus and became not only a study of the crime and its impact on the local community but also an investigation into the lives and motives of the two killers. While describing present action—the arrest, incarceration, trial, and conviction, then the appeals process. and finally the execution by hanging in Lansing, Kansas, in 1965—Capote also delves back into the murderers’ past—their families, aspirations, and personal defeats. Writing the book took more than six years.
The organization of the material was ingeniously handled. Capote once said he had taken more than six thousand pages of notes. The book has four sections, all of which offer the reader shifts in time and place, rather like the cinematic technique of parallel editing, thus allowing the reader to experience simultaneous events with different persons in different locales. The four sections are titled “The...
(The entire section is 983 words.)