(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The great theme of In Cold Blood, if it can be called a theme, is America itself. The America of Capote's book is a vast sprawling landscape of deserts and beaches and plains, laundromats and diners. One is constantly impressed by the sheer distance, the amount of miles traveled, the amount of miles there are to travel. Dick Hickock and Perry Smith travel over eight hundred miles in twenty-four hours to commit their crimes. Afterward they travel to Mexico, back to Kansas, to Florida, Texas, and Nevada. Perry spends his childhood following his parents from Texas to Oregon. He and his father move to Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. As a young man Perry goes from Seattle to Honolulu to Worcester, Massachusetts; St. Joseph, Missouri; McCook, Nebraska; and New York City. Perry "washed dishes in an Omaha restaurant, pumped gas at an Oklahoma garage, worked a month on a ranch in Texas." This sounds like an older America, an Old West America of pioneers and cowboys, a place of dissatisfied travelers who seek their destiny elsewhere, a land where the right job or good luck or gold is always in the next town, a neighboring state, in Alaska, Florida, or maybe Oklahoma. This is a country that by its sheer size and the variety of its landscapes seems to promise bounty, more than enough for everyone, and sets people dreaming and traveling. That size and variety is at the root of the myth of America. It is a place people have, because of industrialization and mass media, almost forgotten. Capote's book restores this America to memory.

The novel tells about the myth of America and how, in contemporary society at least, it can poison. Perry Smith is an American dreamer. He reads the dictionary to improve his vocabulary and loves hard, obscure words. He is a great believer in self-improvement, the peculiarly American obsession. He wants to hunt diamonds, buried treasure, so the killers go to Mexico. Perry starts to realize his dreams are untenable in America, and decides that maybe they could sail around the world, dreaming. Perry's done it all his life. As readers watch Perry stumbling across the American landscape they realize that this huge country which seems to promise so much can deliver very little. It begins to seem too big, monstrously large. It can engulf an individual in its indifferent size. It comes to seem a place where the weak and the disaffected can slip unnoticed into the cracks or get tangled in its teasing possibilities and wind up with rage and frustration crowding out whatever moral sense was there. One's sense of the unmanageability of the country is only heightened by the search for the killers. The police discover their identity by accident. The same landscape which helps to create Perry Smith takes him back in, enfolds him in its size, hides him. At one point they even pause again in Kansas, undetected.

Upon this vast backdrop Capote paints, in minute detail, the village of Holcomb, Kansas, a county of Garden City. It is a place of pastoral beauty. Everyone knows everyone else and their business. There is a...

(The entire section is 1242 words.)


(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Nature versus Nurture
Capote includes, almost in their entirety, long texts written by Smith's sister, his father, the court-appointed psychiatrist, and his friend Willie Jay, which detail Smith's childhood, motorcycle accident, prejudices, and mental state. The composite image of Smith derived from these accounts is one of an innately intelligent, talented, sensitive being warped and eroded by neglect, abuse, humiliation, and unresolved emotional trauma. Smith's mother, an alcoholic, choked on her own vomit. His brother and sister committed suicide and another sister disowned him. His father moved him from house to house during childhood, preventing Smith from going to school. Nonetheless, Smith has taught himself to play the guitar and harmonica, to paint, and to speak with exacting grammar. He reads constantly and, ‘‘being a bit of a prude,’’ avoids vulgar literature and materials. In prison, he paints a portrait of Jesus for the prison chaplain, which leads Reverend Post to believe that Smith cannot be "all that bad.’’ Capote's recounting of Smith's childhood and family life begs the question whether Smith's crimes stem from inherent criminal tendencies, or whether he is pushed onto that path through circumstances beyond his control.

The community of Holcomb, Kansas cannot rest until the killers are brought to justice. "Why don't you arrest somebody?’’ a townsperson asks Agent Dewey. "That's what you get paid for.'' The subsequent mistrust and insecurity that pervade the town can only be alleviated by the knowledge that someone has been apprehended and punished....

(The entire section is 669 words.)