The reader is introduced to the village of Holcomb, a small yet prosperous farming settlement in western Kansas. Herbert Clutter, a self-made man and prominent member of the community, lives a comfortable life as the owner and proprietor of River Valley Farm, where he resides with his wife, Bonnie, and children, Nancy (sixteen), and Kenyon (fifteen). The Clutters are a principled and upstanding family, active churchgoers and participants in community life, both in Holcomb and the neighboring Garden City.
Nancy, who is a “straight-A student, the president of her class, a leader in the 4-H program and the Young Methodists league, a skilled rider, an excellent musician, and an annual winner at the county fair,” also volunteers her time to instruct younger girls in baking and other domestic occupations, and has recently played a principal role in the school production of “Tom Sawyer.” Kenyon, more reticent than his sister, spends much of his time woodworking in the Clutters’ basement shop, or hunting rabbits with his best friend Bob Jones. The Clutters’ peaceful and contented existence is marred only by the fact that Bonnie Clutter suffers from clinical depression, a condition that leaves her bedridden on many days; however, doctors have finally traced her ailment to dislocation in her spinal column, and she is expected to make a full recovery.
The narration takes the reader through the events of Saturday, November 14th, which is ominously described as the family’s “last.” Nancy instructs a young neighbor, Jolene Katz, in the baking of a cherry pie. Kenyon puts the finishing touches on a hope chest he has built as a wedding present for his older sister, and then travels with his father to a meeting of the 4-H club in Garden City. Bonnie Clutter spends a typical afternoon in bed.
Four hundred miles away, in Olathe, Kansas, a man named Perry Smith awaits the arrival of his friend and compatriot, Richard “Dick” Hickock. Dick has planned a “score,” for which he requires Perry’s assistance. While he waits, Perry peruses a series of maps, dreaming of treasure-hunting expeditions in exotic locales, South America in particular. Upon Dick’s arrival, we learn that both men are on parole from the Kansas State Penitentiary. The nature of the “score” is not yet made explicit, but Dick has stolen his father's twelve-gauge shotgun and has fabricated a story that the pair are planning to visit Perry’s sister in Fort Scott. They take to the road, making various stops along the way to purchase supplies: rubber gloves, rope, black stockings.
Perry, thoughtful and reserved, reflects on his earliest encounters with Dick and the other inmates of the Kansas Penitentiary, including the pious and philosophic Willie-Jay, whom Perry regards as his “real and only friend.” Willie-Jay’s esteemed opinion of Perry as “exceptional” and “artistic” (45) is contrasted with Dick’s impatience with his companion's sensitive and cautious outlook in their early interactions.
Back in Holcomb, Herb Clutter meets with a representative of New York Life Insurance, and takes out a forty-thousand-dollar policy, which pays double indemnity in the event of death by accidental means. Later that evening, the Clutters are visited by Bobby Rupp, Nancy’s boyfriend. Herb Clutter disapproves of the relationship: while the Clutters are Methodist, the Rupps are Catholic, and for this reason he will not consider allowing Nancy to marry Bobby. Nonetheless, Herb is cordial to Bobby. Before retiring, Nancy reflects on the situation and records a few notes from the day in her five-year diary.
Perry and Dick stop for gas at a Phillip’s 66 in Garden City at around midnight, before making their way to Holcomb and eventually, River Valley Farm.
Critics have described the opening passage of In Cold Blood as “Homeric” (after the Greek epic poet Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey). Capote’s descriptions of the landscape and built environment lend them a mythological stature, foreshadowing the enormity of the events to follow: “The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as the Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them” (3). Finney County becomes the theatre of a tragedy about to unfold, whose proportions exceed the specific time and place in which they occur, allowing the book to become a kind of universal rumination on the nature of violence and the human spirit. Capote said that he chose his subject matter partly for its timeless appeal: “The human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken or yellow with time.” The references to classical antiquity, then, underscore the universality of Capote’s engagement.
The Clutter lifestyle is unimpeachable, almost to a fault. If Herb Clutter is comparable to the hero in a Greek tragedy, then his self-righteous attitude is his hubris, the tragic flaw that results (indirectly) in his demise. He holds himself, his family, and his employees to the strictest standards: he does not tolerate alcohol, or even mild stimulants such as caffeine; he keeps his children on a short leash (Nancy is rarely allowed out of the house after ten); and he runs his ranch like clockwork. In exchange for this rigidity, however, he provides liberally for his family and employees, and has succeeded in turning River Valley Farm into a highly profitable enterprise. This enviable lifestyle makes him a likely target for Dick and Perry’s scheme, and, as is revealed later in the book, plays a direct role in fueling the psychological rampage that results in the deaths of all four Clutters.
Capote introduces Perry with an ironic flourish, by comparing him to Herb: “Like Mr. Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a café called the Little Jewel never drank coffee” (14). Here the similarity ends, for Perry is in many ways the polar opposite of Herb Clutter. He is a romantic, dreaming of treasure-hunting adventures in far-flung locales; adventures which, based on what we know of him right now, are not supported by any realistic financial means. Perry and Dick are both physically maimed from motor-vehicle accidents, a detail that not only discloses the recklessness of their lifestyles, but also hints at subtler forms of emotional damage. While Herb Clutter celebrates the fact that he has been pronounced “in first-rate condition” in a recent medical examination, Perry nurses his aching knees in a gas station men’s room.
We also begin to glimpse elements of the complex interpersonal dynamic of Perry and Dick. Dick is easygoing and self-assured, where Perry is cautious and reflective; Perry admires Dick for being a “real masculine type,” but Dick needs Perry for what he considers to be Perry’s “natural killer” tendencies (based on stories Perry has told him). Yet in spite of this mutual esteem for one another, the two men's relationship features elements of insecure rivalry, coupled with just enough disdain to keep the men at arm’s length.
Significantly, we are told that Perry’s original reason for returning to Kansas was to meet up with Willie-Jay upon his release from the Penitentiary, and that it is only after missing Willie-Jay by five hours that Perry consents to partake in Dick’s scheme. Symbolically, the planned “score” and the desperate actions that ensue become a kind of substitute for Perry’s last chance to reconnect with his “real and only friend,” foretelling the extent to which the murders are to act as recompense for his dejected life.