In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood Study Guide

In Cold Blood, which was published serially in The New Yorker in 1965 before appearing in book form in 1966, is the work that launched Truman Capote to literary stardom, and remains his best-known piece. It details the events of a real-life murder case that took place in Finney County, in western Kansas, between 1959 and 1965. On the night of November 14th, 1959, two men entered a home in Holcomb, Kansas, and slaughtered four members of the Clutter family, a wealthy and respected household in Finney County. The apparent randomness and unfounded brutality of the act, the likes of which had rarely been seen in this part of Kansas, shocked and disturbed the surrounding community, as its residents saw their peaceful and anonymous lifestyle suddenly invaded by law enforcement, the media, and the watchful eyes of the rest of the nation.

Among those keenly interested in the case was Truman Capote. Flipping through The New York Times on a November morning, he had come across a brief article outlining the murders with only the barest details (“Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain”), and imagined the case could be the subject of his next project, a long-form work of nonfiction. By mid-December, he was on a train to Kansas, eager to see what more he could uncover.

The investigation went on for six weeks, during which time Capote attempted to earn the favor and cooperation of Holcomb’s residents and interview them about their experiences. He was accompanied by his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. She, well acquainted with the ways of small-town rural life, gained the confidence of Holcomb’s residents far more quickly than Capote, whose flamboyant demeanor quickly set him apart from many of his subjects and rendered him somewhat of an outsider. Just before the first real break in the murder case, however, Capote got a break of his own: he and Lee were invited to the home of Clifford Hope, a lawyer in Garden City, for Christmas dinner, and the Hopes, much to their surprise, were quite charmed by him. Before long, Capote became a kind of curiosity in Garden City and Holcomb, and those involved in the case gradually opened their homes and their hearts to him.

Shortly before New Year’s, 1960, the perpetrators – identified as Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith – were apprehended in Las Vegas and transferred to Finney County, where they were tried and convicted of the killings. They spent five years on Death Row, during which time they corresponded regularly with Capote and provided him with numerous interviews, as well as written accounts of their personal histories and experiences. Capote developed a particular affection for Perry Smith, the scrawnier and more sensitive of the two, who had allegedly pulled the trigger on all four victims. Smith was highly intelligent and creative, yet scarred from a turbulent upbringing by neglectful parents – much like Capote himself. Their relationship was such that, as Harper Lee put it, “Each looked at the other and saw – or thought he saw – the man he might have been." A number of critics and eyewitnesses have suggested that their relationship may have been romantic, and it may have been, but it is also possible that they merely shared a sensibility shaped by common experiences.

After a number of appeals and postponements, the prisoners were hanged in the early hours of the morning on April 14, 1965. Capote, ambivalent to the end about the execution – on the one hand, he needed an ending to complete his book, but on the other, he had become incredibly emotionally tied to the prisoners – was present at the execution. Despondent yet relieved, he finished the last installment of the book in June of 1965, and it was set for publication that fall.

In Cold Blood is considered an example of “New Journalism,” a genre that was pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by Capote as well as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joan Didion, among others. (Capote, however, disliked this branding, referring instead to his work as a “nonfiction novel.”) The New Journalists were the first to employ literary techniques – or techniques adapted from fiction writing – to present their nonfiction narratives. The result was a new brand of in-depth, novelistic coverage of real-world events, presented from the perspective of individuals experiencing them firsthand (including the writer him/herself, who carried out extensive field research in order to capture the complete picture of events).

The much-anticipated first section of In Cold Blood appeared in The New Yorker in September of 1965, breaking the magazine’s sales record. The four installments garnered the highest praise from critics and readers alike, who commended their “Homeric” storytelling and the depth of Capote’s characterization, especially of Dick and Perry. When the book was finally published in full by Random House in early 1966, his new “masterpiece” rocketed Capote to celebrity status, and ranked him among the literary giants of his era. In Cold Blood remains one of the most significant works of literature of the twentieth century, both for its merging of journalistic and literary storytelling, and for its unprecedented insight into the nature of criminality in American culture.