10 min read ⌚
Ready for another true crime story? How about the original one?
If so, you’re in luck—today, we have for you the summary of Truman Capote’s most celebrated and genre-defining book:
Who Should Read “In Cold Blood”? And Why?
If you like true crime books such as John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, then In Cold Blood should be the next book on your reading list.
It is not only the first major true crime book—it is also, by many accounts, the best one, both in terms of style and influence.
Truman Capote Biography
Truman Capote was an American writer, screenwriter, and actor.
After discovering his calling as a writer at the age of 8, he spent most of his teenage years perfecting his writing abilities. At 19, he had already penned one of the most celebrated short stories of the 20th century, “Miriam,” and soon after he got his first book deal.
Two years later he published Other Voices, Other Rooms, his first novel, which, together with the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood is considered a literary classic.
Many of Capote’s works have been adapted for the screen, several more than once.
Widely considered the best non-fiction novel ever written—and so highly regarded that it is sometimes incorrectly assumed to be the original one (though it is certainly the first major non-fiction novel, it has a few predecessors)—Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a book that defies categorization and transcends genres.
First published in 1966, it novelizes the 1959 quadruple murder of the Clutter family by Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith but does so with such rigorous attention to detail and veracity that it is difficult to say which parts of it are fictional and why.
It took Truman Capote six years to investigate the story—which he did in the company of his good friend, Harper Lee—and the writing process exhausted him so much that he never finished another book until the end of his life, 18 years later!
Since it is based on a true crime independent of the way the book tells it, there are numerous ways to summarize the story, but we decided to be faithful to Capote’s non-fiction novel.
Chapter I: The Last to See Them Alive
The book begins on November 14, 1959, the last day on earth for four members of the Clutter family: the patriarch, Herbert “Herb” Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenage children, Nancy (16) and Kenyon (15).
Truman Capote uses the first chapter of In Cold Blood to set the stage for their impending murder in an almost cinematic manner, switching back and forth between the ordinary happenings in the Clutter family and the planning of their murder by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock—two recently paroled ex-convicts—who are driving in their direction.
So, while Smith and Hickock are driving around, buying rope and rubber gloves, and discussing whether to buy stockings as well, the members of the Clutter family are going about their day as if it is just an ordinary day.
Herb, a well-respected, church-going and prosperous farmer adored by the community, wakes up early and eats his breakfast before going out on the farm to conduct his daily farm chores.
His daughter Nancy talks to Susan, a friend of hers, on the phone about a boy she’s been dating named Bobby Rupp, and, later on, teaches another friend named Jolene Katz how to make a cherry pie.
Meanwhile, Kenyon—ever interested in manufacturing things and fixing cars—is making a hope chest for his sister in the basement recreational room.
At about this time, an insurance salesman arrives and starts a discussion with Herb. He is later seen leaving the premise immensely satisfied, having made a hefty deal for a life insurance policy with Herb.
As Dick and Smith are nearing ever more to the farm of the Clutters, they are visited by Bobby, Nancy’s boyfriend, who has dinner with the family. After watching some TV with them later on, he leaves at about 11 PM.
Capote cuts the story here and transfers us to the next morning, when Nancy Ewalt, a friend of Nancy Clutter, arrives at the house for a visit. No one answers her knocks and calls, so she asks the housekeeper where are the Clutters.
Since he is all but sure that they are home, he goes with her to investigate. The two eventually go inside the house only to reveal the four lifeless bodies of the Clutter family scattered around the floor.
The peaceful town of Holcomb, Kansas is shaken to its very foundation upon hearing the news. People begin to meet and gossip (mostly at Hartman’s Café), discussing possible suspects and most of them fearing that the murderer is probably somebody they know.
The real murderers have, of course, fled the town. Perry has spent the night in a hotel, and Dick with his family in Oklahoma, to whom he tells that that he has come straight from a visit of Perry’s sister in Fort Scott—the reason for his journey.
Chapter II: Persons Unknown
The Kansas state police (or KBI for short) begins its investigation, with detective Alvin Dewey acting as the leader. Though there are not many leads, Dewey suspects that the murder is done by more than one killer; however, he is unable to find a motive, since almost nothing is missing from the house.
Meanwhile, in Olathe, a town of Oklahoma, Perry and Dick sit in a diner. Though both of them are starving, Perry is unable to eat, crippled by fear that they will be found. Even so, he still has enough strength to bully Dick into admitting that they killed a whole family on a piece of incorrect information.
Namely, they expected to find a treasure inside the home of the Clutter family, and they left with nothing more than a pair of binoculars, a small portable radio and about $50 dollars in cash.
As Dewey is following tips from overly concerned citizens back in Holcomb, Perry and Dick head off to Mexico City, where they befriend a German tourist named Otto and where Perry confesses to Dick that he had never killed a man before, despite telling him the opposite.
However, they have to leave Mexico soon after due to their inability to go on paying their hotel bills—which they have been paying with bad checks anyhow.
After their return to America, an old letter sent by his father, Tex John Smith, to his parole officers, incites a stream of memories in the head of Perry, and Capote uses this moment to give us a sketch of Perry’s previous life.
We learn that his parents divorced when he was a child and that he spent most of his early years being raised by his alcoholic mother. He even tried to run away from her once, but he was turned away by his father once he got to him.
Eventually, after his mother died from choking on her own vomit, Perry and his siblings were sent to a Catholic orphanage, where, supposedly, he was repeatedly beaten by the nuns for his bed wetting habit.
At 16, Perry joined the United States Merchant Marines, and in 1948, he joined the Army as well. He served in the Korean War and received an honorable discharge four years later. Soon after he bought a motorcycle and nearly died after losing control of it due to adverse weather conditions.
He spent six months in the hospital after this accident, recovering only to a certain extent: due to the severity of the injuries, he would go on suffering chronic leg pain until the end of his life. As a consequence, he also grew to become a painkiller addict.
Back in Holcomb, Dewey is unable to find any kind of lead to help him, and the town grows increasingly impatient with the fact that nobody is arrested even after so many weeks.
Chapter III: The Answer
Relaxing in his cell, a prisoner by the name of Floyd Wells hears the news over the radio of the murders of the Clutter family. Even though he can guess the identity of one of the murderers right away, it is only weeks after this event that he decides to contact the police.
How does he know anything about the murder even with being in his jail cell all this time?
Well, because it was he who gave the incorrect information to his former cellmate Hickock that Herbert Clutter—for whom Floyd Wells has worked in the past—has a $10,000 fortune lying around at his house! Moreover, he has heard Hickock talking about his plans to rob the Clutter family—he never bothered to stop or correct him!
The KBI knows right away that this is a strong lead. So, Harold Nye, a KBI agent starts following it, heading straight to Hickock’s home in Oklahoma, where he learns about his supposed visit of Perry’s sister on the night of the murder.
And that’s where he heads next. As expected, in San Francisco, Perry’s sister Barbara reveals to him that she has seen neither her brother nor Dick for a long, long time.
In the meantime, in a pretty dumb move, Dick and Perry return to Kansas to exchange some bad checks for money, and Dick even uses his own name to sign them. This doesn’t escape the police and Harold Nye phones Al Dewey with the info. However, the two escape before Dewey can get to them and travel to Miami.
On December 30th, 1959, Dewey finally receives a long-awaited phone call: Dick and Perry have been arrested in Las Vegas. He, Nye, and two other KBI agents immediately head there to question the suspects. Despite the fact that they are being questioned by the Kansas police, the murderers are not worried: they are sure that they have been arrested for passing bad checks.
However, after some time, in two different rooms, both Perry and Dick are faced with the real reason for their capture. Though both of them deny any involvement in the murders, Nye and Dewey notice that they look shaken.
The very next day, Dick cracks and admits everything, repeatedly claiming that it was Perry who had killed all four Clutters. After realizing that Dick has already confessed, Perry tells a different story, claiming that the women were shot by Dick.
Chapter IV: The Corner
Perry and Dick are kept in the Garden City jail where they are asked by a psychologist to write autobiographies chronicling their youth. Perry takes the assignment seriously, but Dick is much more casual and disinterested.
Possibly because he is planning to escape using a shiv which he has created from a brush. However, as his diary reveals, this shiv is later discovered by the sheriff which kills some of Dick’s hope. Perry’s hope is expressed in the form of fantasies of someone saving him unexpectedly, but, deep down inside, he knows that this will never happen.
Soon after, the trial begins, and Floyd Wells testifies and corroborates the state’s case. Dewey does the same, describing in detail what happened on the night of the murders. It is too gruesome and brutal to be summarized here, but let’s just say that it involves everything: binding, gagging, a slit throat and four .12-gauge shotgun shots.
Unsurprisingly, Dewey’s description shocks everybody present, including the judge, who doesn’t allow a psychologist to testify in favor of Perry’s insanity. Had he allowed him, Capote says, the psychologist would probably have said something along these lines:
Two features in his personality make-up stand out as particularly pathological. The first is his ‘paranoid’ orientation toward the world. He is suspicious and distrustful of others, tends to feel that others discriminate against him, and feels that others are unfair to him and do not understand him. He is overly sensitive to criticism that others make of him, and cannot tolerate being made fun of. He is quick to sense slight or insult in things others say, and frequently may misinterpret well-meant communications. He feels the great need of friendship and understanding, but he is reluctant to confide in others, and when he does, expects to be misunderstood or even betrayed. In evaluating the intentions and feelings of others, his ability to separate the real situation from his own mental projections is very poor. He not infrequently groups all people together as being hypocritical, hostile, and deserving of whatever he is able to do to them. Akin to this first trait is the second, an ever-present, poorly controlled rage—easily triggered by any feelings of being tricked, slighted, or labeled inferior by others.
The verdict comes as no surprise to anyone: Perry and Dick are given the death sentence and sent to the death row section of Lansing Penitentiary.
In Cold Blood Epilogue
At Lansing, Dick spends most of his time writing to different organizations for help, and Perry tries to starve himself to death until a letter from his father intervenes. Unlike Dick, Perry is passive, isolated, and even stranger than before. According to Dick, nobody likes Perry there—himself not excluded.
After several delays, five years after the first trial, Perry and Dick are finally executed on April 15th, 1965. Before being hanged, Dick shakes hands with four KBI officers and apologizes. Perry does the latter as well.
Dewey leaves the execution site feeling unsatisfied. He remembers running into Susan, Nancy’s friend, at the graveyard recently. Susan told him that Bobby Rupp has found a girl in the meantime and is now married. She also said she was doing well herself.
As Dewey says “Good luck” to her thinking how Nancy might have been just her kind of a young woman, the wind starts whispering through the grass of the graveyard.
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“In Cold Blood PDF Quotes”It is no shame to have a dirty face- the shame comes when you keep it dirty. Click To Tweet As long as you live, there's always something waiting; and even if it's bad, and you know it's bad, what can you do? You can't stop living. Click To Tweet If one bird carried every grain of sand, grain by grain, across the ocean, by the time he got them all on the other side, that would only be the beginning of eternity. Click To Tweet Imagination, of course, can open any door - turn the key and let terror walk right in. Click To Tweet I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Truman Capote was already a nationwide celebrity even before In Cold Blood, but after the publication of this book, he became a star in circles far beyond the literary ones.
An immediate sensation, the book was declared a “masterpiece” by many critics, and nobody has changed his mind to this very day.
“The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught,” wrote Tom Wolfe in an essay the following year, “since the answers to both questions are known from the outset… Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.”
How’s that for originality, ha?
Learn more and more, in the speed that the world demands.