Truman Capote: In Cold Blood Summary

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Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood delves into the true story of the murder of the Clutter family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. The city of Holcomb was once a quiet and innocent town where folks knew their neighbors, left their front doors unlocked, and the crime rate was almost non-existent; but once those four shots that killed an innocent family rang throughout the city, everyone seemed to become strangers.


The beginning of the novel sets the scene of the Clutter family’s daily life. Herb and Bonnie Clutter and two out of their four children, Nancy and Kenyon Clutter, are the most prominent family in Holcomb and very well known by the townsfolk. Mr. Clutter starts his days early and productive, “clanging milk pails and the whispery chatter of the boys who brought them” (Capote 7). Being one of the wealthiest people in Holcomb, Mr. Clutter hired many people to do household chores and errands. Unlike Mr. Clutter, Mrs. Clutter sleeps in for as long as she can every morning.

Mrs. Clutter suffers from minor psychiatric disabilities which cause her to have nervous tendencies. Her mental state is a result from a misplaced vertebrae. Nancy Clutter is a very smart and bright girl. She recently had met a boy who her father liked and he was one of the last people to see them alive. Nancy often cooked meals for the family and gave music lessons for some of the younger children in Holcomb. Kenyon Clutter is very happy and industrious. His vision impairment prevents him from participating in athletics: “This defect, aggravated by an inability to function without glasses, prevented him from taking more than a token part in those team sports (basketball, baseball) that were the main occupation of most of the boys who might have been his friend” (39).

Kenyon spends his time working on his truck, guns, and tinkering with woodwork. He has one main friend who recently got a girlfriend and spends most of his time with her, but Kenyon prefers to be alone and focus on his own hobbies. As Capote outlines the day of the Clutter family, he also displays the day of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, the murderers who plan to steal money that is believed to be in a safe in Mr. Clutters estate. Richard Hickock arrives to meet Perry with a shotgun that he stole from his father, a hunting knife and vest. He plans to wear the vest to convince Mr. Clutter that him and Perry were out hunting and needed to use the phone.

Richard and Perry drive to Holcomb late that night and brutally slaughter the Clutter family after they went to sleep. Kansas lawman, Alvin Dewey, and his four special agents lead the manhunt for the killer or killers. After the police arrest the criminals, they confess and are convicted to Death Row after only forty minutes of jury deliberation. Perry explains that, “After, see, after we’d taped them Dick and I went off in a corner.” (244). Dick and Perry confess in great detail of how they executed their plan. Capote includes an in-depth view of both killers’ psychological problems and attempts to unveil what made them into the evil and violent killers they were. Five years after their conviction, both men are executed by hanging and the community continues to recover from the horrific tragedy.


One of the many themes presented in In Cold Blood is the qualities of a family and how it shapes character. Capote explains in great detail the Clutter family and Perry Smith’s family. The Clutter family is seen as flawless by the people of Holcomb because of their wealth and success. Although they do seem quite normal, they do have minor issues. Mr. and Mrs. Clutter present themselves as a happy couple but in reality they do not even sleep in the same bed. Capote writes about Mrs. Clutter’s inability to make decisions during Herb’s frequent business trips. Nancy and Mr. Clutter take care of the house and chores more than Mrs. Clutter.

Despite her lack of involvement, Mrs. Clutter loves her family deeply and fears her mental state will affect them. She does not want her to children to remember her “As a kind of a ghost” (Capote 25). Mrs. Clutter knows that her illness puts her at a disadvantage for caring and being involved in her family. She wants to take care of her family and be there for them despite her disability. Capote is also obsessed with Peter Smith’s family background and how it shaped him into the killer he is now. Capote explores the ways of how Perry’s lack of a strong family relationship made him a social misfit.

Perry blames his violent nature on a childhood filled with constant brutality and neglect. Perry’s family had a hectic way of living from always being on the road and living in an old broken down trailer that sat on “mush and Hershey Kisses and condensed milk” (108). Before Perry’s father started to brutally abuse his mother, Perry was a normal and happy child. Perry’s mother had been with many men and was not disciplined, which gave him an excuse for his behavior. Capote explores Perry’s tragic childhood and reveals the reasons for his psychological issues.

As a second theme, Capote appears to be obsessed with criminality and the events that lead a person to commit such horrific acts of crime. Richard Hickock believes he is a normal person and argues that he has no issues but his father his father believes that, “the reason he started doing stunts such as that was connected with the smash-up. Concussed his head in a car smash-up. After that, he wasn’t the same boy. Gambling, writing bad checks, I never knew him to do them things before” (166). Ronald Nye, one of the Kansas City Bureau investigators, interviewed Richard Hickock’s father in order to gain insight on why Richard would have any motive or issues that would lead him to committing homicide.

Capote analyzes the mental state, socioeconomic status, and self-image both killers suffer from and how these circumstances led to the Clutter family’s murder. Not only is Perry’s family life one of the main reasons for his mental state, but Capote examines how his self-image affected his mental state. Capote includes Perry’s psychiatric evaluation by Dr. Jones: “He is overly sensitive to criticisms that others make of him, and cannot tolerate being made fun of. He is quick to sense slight or insult in things others say” (297). By including the entire evaluation of Perry’s mental state, Capote is able to reveal the psychological issues involved with criminality. Capote explains the motives and mental issues that affect a person’s psychological state in order to analyze the motives and reasons behind the brutal murder of the Clutters.


Perry’s main conflict is with himself. His extensive list of mental issues cause him to be in constant question of himself and his motives. Perry is highly intelligent but lacks a sense of moral values. Dr. Jones describes him as, “suspicious and distrustful toward the world” (Capote 297). These characteristics often make him question himself, others, and the world. Perry also suffered with anger-management issued that gradually led to thoughts of suicide. He struggled with controlling himself over small instances which led to violence “directed at authority figures” (297).

He had a list of assaults against his father, brother, an Army sergeant, and a parole officer. Perry also has trouble emotionally attaching himself to others because of his past relationship with his family. Dr. Jones describes him having “little feeling for others outside a very small circle of friends, and attaches little real value to human life” (298). The conflict that Perry faced with himself was never resolved which led him to murder the Clutter family. The lack of resolution after the crime led him to prison and eventually Death Row.

Literary/Rhetorical Device

Capote uses a series of rhetorical devices but the most prominent device is foreshadowing. Assuming the reader already has an insight on the main occurrence in the story, Capote presents a series of foreshadowing in In Cold Blood. The night before the Clutters are killed, Capote describes Mrs. Clutter getting ready for bed: “Now, on this final day of her life, Mrs. Clutter hung in the closet the calico housedress she had been wearing, and put in one of her trailing nightgowns ad a fresh set of white socks” (30). This statement foreshadows what eventually happens the next day when she is killed. Capote also explains Mr. Clutter ‘Then touching the brim of his cap, he headed for home and the day’s work, unaware that it would be his last’ (13).

Capote does not mention why it would be Mr. Clutter’s last day, but he foreshadows the events that are yet to come. Capote also foreshadows the the actions of Perry and Richard the day before the murders. The author mentions the car the killers were driving and how ‘between today and tomorrow the aged Chevrolet was expected to perform punishing feats'(23). Capote mentions the ‘feats’ the car would eventually perform to allude the events that would occur that night. Capote’s use of foreshadowing implies the incident in the time ahead.


Truman Capote’s motivation to analyze the true story of the murder of the Clutter family was to test the artistic merit of journalism. Capote outlines, in great detail, the background of the Clutter family along with Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. He describes the issues the Clutter family faced along with the psychological problems Perry and Richard suffered from.

Capote also reveals the process of the investigators and psychiatrists that dealt with the murderers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. Because of Capote’s critique of journalism and the detailed explanation of the occurrences that led to the famous murder of the Clutter family, my inquiry and research will focus on the reasons behind Capote’s motivation to test the artistic merit of journalism.


Cite this paper

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood Summary. (2021, Mar 10). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/truman-capote-in-cold-blood/

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