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In Cold Blood Summary and Analysis

by Truman Capote

Answer, Part 1 (159-215)

The reader is introduced to Floyd Wells for the first time. Wells, a former employee at River Valley Farm, was Dick’s first cellmate at the Kansas State Penitentiary, and the first to inform Dick what a “score” might be had by robbing the Clutter household. Upon hearing the news of the murders, he realizes that Dick must be the perpetrator, and presents his account to the authorities at the prison.

The KBI investigative unit is elated to receive this lead, and Agent Nye pays a visit to the parents of Dick Hickcock, who offer some clues about Dick’s early life. Though a decent student and talented athlete, as a young man Dick could not afford to attend college. Instead, at the age of nineteen he married a sixteen-year-old girl named Carol, and the pair had three children. They spent several years living above their means and accruing debt, and Dick began to gamble and write bad checks before finally divorcing Carol for another woman. Eventually, Dick was sent to prison for theft, where he met Perry and others. However, for the few months prior to the fateful night of November 14th, Dick had been living peacefully in his parents’ home, earning an honest living at the Bob Sands Auto Shop. On that night, he convinced his parents that he would be accompanying Perry to meet Perry’s sister in Fort Scott, where she was holding a sum of fifteen hundred dollars for Perry.

Dick and Perry, hitchhiking in Nebraska, hatch a plan to murder and rob the motorists who offer rides to them, but are repeatedly thwarted. Crossing the border into Iowa, they take refuge from a rainstorm in an empty barn, where they find and steal a 1956 Chevrolet. From here they make their way to Kansas City, where Dick goes on another shopping spree with bad checks. Perry is uneasy with the prospect of being so close to the Kansas authorities, and wary of Dick’s recklessness, but he complies grudgingly.

The KBI detectives continue to seek out the relatives and acquaintances of Perry and Dick. Agent Nye visits the boardinghouse in Las Vegas where Perry is reported to have stayed, and discovers a cardboard box filled with his possessions. He then seeks out Barbara, Perry’s sister, in her San Francisco home, where she admits to being “afraid” of her brother. As children, she relates, they were inseparable, but she became fearful of his “wild” tendencies as he grew into adulthood. Perry, for his part, resents the education that Barbara and their two other siblings received while he was confined to trapping furs with his father in Alaska.

The Kansas City police, meanwhile, have identified the stolen Chevrolet, which has been traced to the fugitives. Dick and Perry have made their way to Miami Beach with the earnings from Dick’s spree, where they spend Christmas. Dick flirts with a young girl on the beach, which Perry observes with disgust: Perry has “no respect for people who can’t control themselves sexually.”

The murders continue to haunt the town of Holcomb. Bobby Rupp and Susan Kidwell mourn the loss of their friend during the holiday season, and Bobby reminisces about happy Christmas days spent at the Clutter house. Dick and Perry continue to roam the countryside, one day meeting up with an old man and his grandson, who teach them to collect bottles on the roadside to exchange for refund deposits.

On the evening of December 30th, Alvin Dewey receives a phone call, informing him that Perry Smith and Dick Hickock have been arrested in Las Vegas. The Dewey family is at once jubilant to hear of this victory, and apprehensive for what is to come.

Analysis:

After learning so much about Perry’s early life, we are now offered Dick’s story. His criminal (or “antisocial”) tendencies are in some ways harder to explain than Perry’s, or at least, they don’t have roots in childhood neglect. Dick has a solid home life, and genuine affection for parents and brother. Economic duress seems to have played a bigger role in determining Dick’s chosen path, but the decisive event seems to have been a head injury he received in a car accident, after which, according to his father, he “wasn’t the same boy.”

Dick’s mother makes a comment about Perry that again foregrounds the topic of homosexuality: “I wouldn’t have him in the house. One look and I saw what he was. With his perfume. And his oily hair. It was clear as day where Dick had met him” (169). Although this is not always the determining element of Perry and Dick’s relationship, it continues to surface and inflect the reader’s perception of events. And in this case, it renders Perry a social outcast; whether or not we choose to believe that the men are romantically involved, homosexuality functions as a symbol of Perry and Dick's larger alienation from conventional society.

Agent Nye gains poignant insight into the life of Perry Smith vis-à-vis a box of his possessions: “True, it was valueless stuff even to a clue-hungry detective. Still, Nye was glad to have seen it; each item—the palliatives for sore gums, the greasy Honolulu pillow—gave him a clearer impression of the owner and his lonely, mean life” (178). Like the artifacts in the Clutter household, these material traces are a weak approximation of the human lives they accompany; but, like the Clutters’ possessions, they are the best that can be done when the truth is so remote or so difficult to understand.

Barbara, Perry’s sister, has made a life for herself that resembles the Clutters’, and she dreads the encroachment of the other world that Perry represents, a world of savagery, resentment, poverty, and self-destruction. She and Perry are divided on the question of their father: Barbara respects and admires Tex John, but Perry harbors deep resentment, blaming him for stunting his intellectual development: “I happen to have a brilliant mind. In case you didn’t know. . . . But no education, because he didn’t want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him. Dumb. Ignorant. That’s the way he wanted me to be” (185). The fact that Perry missed this chance in life has left him bitter, frustrated, and transient; the fact that Barbara did not has enabled her to settle into comfortable and respectable living. The association between Barbara and the Clutters is established in a thoughtful moment of Perry’s: “One fine day he’d pay her back, have a little fun—talk to her, advertise his abilities, spell out in detail the things he was capable of doing to people like her, respectable people, safe and smug people, exactly like Bobo” (194).

In Al Dewey’s dream, the killers are elevated to an epic, inhuman, invincible stature – the mythology of the unsolved crime. As fugitives, they are the essence of evil, wreaking havoc on the innocent; as prisoners (as they will shortly become), they will be revealed in all their frailty and broken humanity; Capote sets up a deliberate contrast by presenting them as larger-than-life in the dream, only to undermine this perception in the scenes to follow.

In the Miami Beach episode, Dick’s insecurities are bared. First, he observes a wealthy man of his age, and wonders, “Why should that sonofabitch have everything, while he had nothing?” (201). Later, on the beach, he succumbs to a tendency of which he is most “sincerely ashamed,” his sexual interest in young girls, by attempting to lure a twelve-year-old. Perry, ever watchful, is disgusted by this behavior.

As the stress of the journey wears on them, the fugitives’ personalities begin to polarize. Perry becomes more apprehensive, and more self-admonishing, whereas Dick starts taking bigger risks. The friction between the two of them begins to escalate, a development which is probably based at least partly on the men’s actual experiences while traveling together. But it also functions as a narrative tactic: Capote builds the drama leading up to the climactic revelation of the events of November 14th, during which, as we will learn, the rivalry between the men literally exploded and resulted in the deaths of the four Clutters.

This, in turn, begs a larger question that has occupied Capote’s critics and readers alike: to what extent is In Cold Blood a simple recounting of fact, and to what extent is it shaped by Capote’s own interpretation of the events and his literary designs?

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