Capote wrote In Cold Blood as a literary experiment. He wanted to write a "nonfiction novel." He felt that he was one of the rare creative people who actually took journalism seriously. The question is whether a book such as In Cold Blood is actually a novel, a creative work, or journalism.
We can pinpoint several artistic aspects of In Cold Blood. First, Capote has to make choices about the structure of the book. Capote chose a starting and ending point, and in between he choose the order and subject matter of the chapters. In the first section, "The Last to See Them Alive," chapters on the activities of the Clutter family alternate with chapters on the preparations for murder being made by Hickock and Smith. Reading about Nancy Clutter baking a pie and then reading about the killers' tattoos creates a montage, contrasting subsequent images to create a specific impression. No newspaper article would have such a creative structure.
When In Cold Blood was first published in January 1966, Hickock and Smith had been dead for less than a year. The murder and trial had garnered big headlines, and many readers probably knew the details of the novel before they began reading it. Capote had to make it interesting even to people who knew the outcome--the book had to be good literature as well as be informative and accurate. The novel is saturated with details that would never have been included in a newspaper. Moreover, the details are carefully picked. Knowing that Capote compiled 8,000 pages of research, the book seems to be a very carefully edited selection of facts and descriptions. For example, very little is said about the two older Clutter daughters, although Capote doubtless interviewed them. He left them out for artistic reasons. This shows that the facts of the Clutter case were the building blocks for what was ultimately a creative work.
In arranging the facts of the Clutter case into a novel, Capote gave them a number of meanings. Not only are some of Capote's opinions apparent--as in the case of his opposition to the death penalty--but the novel itself has several major themes. First, it is a commentary on the American Dream. Herb Clutter has made a wonderful life for himself--his daughter, after all, bakes pies. But Herb Clutter's American idyll is abruptly and arbitrarily shattered by two petty criminals. The American dream is fragile, and it only functions if marginal people (ex-cons) are not present.
In Cold Blood is a romance of the ordinary, a narrative that proceeds from the premise that truth is more compelling than fiction. Capote shows the Clutters to be an exemplary American family—devout Methodists, members of the 4-H Club, happy, productive citizens. He immerses his readers in their quotidian world by crowding his text with details—facts about what Herbert has for breakfast, the configuration of the house, the inventory of crops. Herbert is widely and justifiably respected as an industrious and honest man, and his pretty daughter Nancy would seem to be the perfect high school sweetheart. Perhaps the only element belying the Clutters’ unexceptional wholesomeness is the unaccountable depression from which Herbert’s wife, Bonnie, has suffered over the years.
Holcomb and the Clutters are a challenge to the fanciful and flamboyant Capote, who became famous as the author of Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and who had become the pet of high society. Any writer must confront the impossibility of translating experience into language, but Capote’s task was compounded by how alien his banal raw materials seemed to his worldly, baroque sensibility. In Cold Blood is an inevitably flawed exercise in self-effacement. Its title refers as much to the novelist’s efforts at being a taxidermist of reality as to the carnage of the Clutters’ murder. “Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of the newspapers,” says Larry Hendricks, an aspiring writer new to Kansas, and he expresses Capote’s own ambivalence regarding literary invention.
If the subject of In Cold Blood is apprehension—of an unknown horror threatening the normality of Holcomb, of the vagrant malefactors, of the intractable truth— its principal characters are Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. The two had met at the Kansas State Penitentiary, and later it is an urgent message from Hickock to Smith summoning him to a “score” that sets the mechanism of murder into motion. Hickock had learned about Herbert Clutter’s wealth from Floyd Wells, a cellmate who had worked on his River Valley farm, and he dreamed of robbing Clutter when he got out of prison. Hickock was unaware that Clutter paid his bills with checks and never kept cash in the house, so that Hickock and Smith end up with very little booty for all of their bloody business.
Hickock and Smith are approximately the same age—twenty-eight and thirty, respectively—and both are seasoned veterans of scrapes with the law and of incarceration. Close scrutiny, however, reveals differences between the two so dramatic that much of the appeal of In Cold Blood is a study of complementary and polar personalities. Despite, or because of, barely suppressed lust for pubescent girls, Hickock is preoccupied with appearing “normal.” He comes from a relatively stable and supportive family and has been married twice. Hickock does not seem to suffer from the excruciating self-consciousness that plagues the effeminate Smith. To Smith’s admiring eyes, Hickock is extroverted, resourceful, and “manly.” “Dick’s literalness,” the reader is told, “his pragmatic approach to every subject, was the primary reason Perry had been attracted to him, for it made Dick seem, compared to himself, so authentically tough, invulnerable, ‘totally masculine.’”
Hickock recruits Smith as a companion in crime because he recognizes in the other man the kind of ruthless killer he could never be. Smith is the victim of a loveless, broken home, of painful experiences in an orphanage, and of a motorcycle accident that has left him clumsy and disfigured. Smith is a social misfit diagnosed by a court-appointed psychiatrist as a paranoid schizophrenic. Hickock, a skilled auto mechanic, prides himself on his practicality, while Smith is a dreamer who fantasizes about prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre.
Capote appears more sympathetic to Smith than to Hickock, perhaps because he recognizes a kindred spirit in the diminutive outcast with an ornate vocabulary (Smith is, for example, fond of the word “ineffable”). Hickock mocks Smith’s lavish experiments in music and poetry, but Capote records them solicitously. Yet In Cold Blood, which purges Capote’s manneristic style of its usual embellishments, seems to identify utilitarian prose with truth and poetry with contrivance. The “nonfiction novel” derives much of its power from the tension between Hickock and Smith and from corollary dichotomies between reality and fantasy, masculine and feminine, plain and gaudy.
Asked by one of the arresting officers why he has fallen back into a life of crime, Hickock replies: “That would make a book.” The lengthy and meticulous research that Capote undertook in order to put together that book also makes him alter ego to Alvin Dewey, the leader of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation team assembled to solve the homicides. A friend of Herbert Clutter and, like the slain man, an exemplary Midwestern citizen, Dewey becomes obsessed with solving the puzzle of who killed the Clutters and why. He returns alone again and again to the empty Clutter house to ponder the mystery. He patiently sifts through a vast amount of information until he, like Capote, is able to construct a coherent narrative. A major break comes with a tip from Floyd Wells, who, while still in prison, hears of the Clutter atrocities and informs the warden of his conversations with Hickock. Dewey’s team tracks down Hickock and Smith, who have been crisscrossing the country on a spree of petty crime, and brings them back to Garden City, Kansas, for trial.
Capote assimilates court transcripts, interviews, newspaper accounts, and his own observations, constructing an account of the Holcomb massacres that seems innocent of construction, merely “a true account.” It is a powerful story of inexorable crime and punishment, even more powerful for underscoring the reader’s awareness that this is reality, not literature. Clearly, however, though he pretends to enter the minds of his characters and to deny his own presence, the author is always there, all the way to the final lines: The case is now closed, and fifty-one-year-old Dewey is walking pensively through the cemetery where the Clutter family is buried. In an echo of its opening paragraphs, which had described the enigmatic austerity of the bleak Midwestern plains, a landscape that is intriguing to the flamboyant author from New York, In Cold Blood concludes with a reference to “the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.” The reader might note the alliteration and the carefully balanced cadences, but he is also convinced that that is the way it was.