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In Cold Blood | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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In Cold Blood | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 3) how does Willie-Jay influence Perry Smith's decision to accept Dick Hickock's invitation?

Willie-Jay, a fellow inmate of Perry Smith's at the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing, is the only person in prison Perry believed understood and appreciated him. Although Willie-Jay continually proselytized to nonbeliever Perry, he also described Perry as he saw himself—"exceptional," "rare," and "artistic." As a result, Perry idolized Willie-Jay, and four months out of prison he can think of nothing he needs more than to see Willie-Jay again. When Perry receives Dick Hickock's letter asking him to come to Kansas, he knows Willie-Jay is on parole from prison at the same time. Perry actually goes to Kansas City to meet up with Willie-Jay—but because Perry hasn't contacted Willie-Jay beforehand, Willie-Jay leaves Kansas City right before Perry arrives. The prison chaplain will tell Perry only that Willie-Jay has gone east, given "fine opportunities." So Perry, now left "dizzy with anger and disappointment"—and no one else to turn to—has to take up with Dick.

What purpose does the cherry pie scene in In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 2) serve in character development?

The cherry pie scene serves both to exemplify Nancy Clutter's selflessness and talent and to create a sense of unease when Jolene Katz and Bonnie Clutter interact. Nancy agrees to show Jolene how to make a cherry pie on Saturday, the last day of Nancy's life. But she realizes she has typically overbooked herself in trying to help everybody. Nancy had agreed to accompany her father to a 4-H club meeting; he says he will take Kenyon instead. After the pie lesson, Nancy has to dash off to help another young girl with a music lesson, and then she runs several errands for her mother, Bonnie. The interaction between Jolene and Bonnie Clutter changes the happy mood of the scene. Bonnie seems relaxed one moment, and panicked the next as she shows Jolene her collection of tiny objects. Jolene begins to feel uneasy around her friend's mother and is relieved when her own mother finally arrives to pick her up. Jolene's sense of unease in this scene foreshadows the more disturbing things to come at the Clutters' house.

In an interview, Capote once said young writers, including himself, "learned and borrowed from the visual, structural side of movie technique." How does In Cold Blood use cinematic techniques?

Capote had written a screenplay for the 1953 film Beat the Devil and was well aware of techniques such as intercutting among the actions of various characters, and using close-ups and flashbacks. He used all these techniques in writing In Cold Blood. By dividing the four sections of the novel into numerous short scenes, he was able to provide a cinematic cross-cutting among the omniscience third-person narrator and the first-person narrators, creating a fast pace. Detailed interviews provide the literary equivalent of close-ups, in which readers get to know the participants intimately. Finally, the shifts back and forth in time among events involving the Clutter family, the criminals, and the investigation give the reader an unusually deep understanding of how and why the crime was committed.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 4) how does the author reveal Perry Smith as the most likely shooter?

Dick Hickock, having heard and believed Perry Smith's lie about having killed a man in Las Vegas just for "the hell of it," believes Perry will be the key to the success of Dick's scheme. He decides Perry is "a natural killer," who is sane but lacks a conscience and will be able to carry out a cold-blooded killing. So to groom and "woo Perry" to do what Dick wants—to carry out the killing part of the "score"—he pretends to enjoy the same things Perry does. Then when the killers stop for gas at the Phillips 66 station, Dick stays by the car while Perry goes into the station and locks himself in the men's restroom to take more aspirin, drink some water, and rub his aching legs. Because Dick has told him "they were almost there," Perry takes out a pair of the rubber gloves they just purchased. When he slips them on, one splits between two fingers. Perry thinks this is an omen about what might come while carrying out the crime. His actions telegraph to the reader he is thinking about and getting ready to commit the murders.

In In Cold Blood, why does Dick Hickock address Perry Smith with terms of endearment?

Dick Hickock uses terms of endearment like "honey," "sugar," and "beauty" when he speaks to Perry Smith, almost as if he were addressing a sweetheart. Dick uses these terms to make Perry believe he and Dick are in a real relationship. Given what Perry has told Dick about his friend Willie-Jay, whom Perry had nearly idolized while in prison, Dick probably understands Perry has transferred his affection for Willie-Jay (whom Perry had come to Kansas City to meet, only to find Willie-Jay has moved on and out of Perry's life) to Dick. Dick exploits the affections of Perry, a sensitive "boy-man," while coldly planning to dump Perry once they get to Las Vegas. Dick also knows about Perry's terrible childhood, and how he had never been addressed by any family members or caregivers with terms of endearment. Being perhaps the first person ever to call Perry by loving terms, Dick draws Perry in emotionally.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 5) what is unusual about the positions in which the bodies are found?

There is a strange dichotomy between the almost tender positioning of the bodies and the brutal way each person has been killed. Those searching the Clutter house find Herb Clutter, with his throat slit and shot in the head, placed on a mattress box as if someone tried to make him comfortable. Kenyon Clutter has been tied, gagged, and shot, but his body is on a couch in the basement, a pillow under his head. Nancy Clutter is found with her hands tied behind her and ankles roped together, tucked into her bed, as if by a parent. Bonnie Clutter, shot in her bedroom, is also on her bed, with her hands tied together in front of her as if she were praying. This personal touch may have been what led the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey, to believe the murders had been committed by someone who knew the Clutters. He could not believe a stranger or strangers who didn't know the Clutters would have shown them such incongruous tenderness.

How were Dick Hickock's and Perry Smith's family relationships—both their families of origin and those they tried to create as adults—alike and different in In Cold Blood?

Dick Hickock grew up in a functional family; despite not having much money, his parents did their best for Dick and his brother. Dick was a good student and athlete. He fell in love and got married after finishing high school, and was soon a father. He liked women, and they liked him, so he divorced his first wife and married a second. Dick, however, had a serious accident, after which his tendency for theft and crimes worsened; he ended up in prison for passing bad checks. His injuries, not his past, seem to have contributed to his criminal tendencies. Perry Smith, on the other hand, suffered a terrible childhood. His family was dysfunctional; after his parents split up, his mother left him at an orphanage and a children's shelter where he was abused and beaten. He was sexually abused while in the military, and two of his siblings committed suicide. The only woman he loved was a nurse he lost track of. Perry, too, suffered a bad accident, which broke his legs in five places and left him with chronic pain that he treated with aspirin. He ended up in prison around the same time as Dick, but for robbery. Perry was not sexually active and hated people who hurt children. His unstable past and aspirin addiction, more than his injuries, probably contributed to his personality disorder.

How does the author of In Cold Blood use setting to reflect the interests and personality of each of the Clutters?

Descriptions of the Clutter farm and its highly organized orchards, fields, and barn reflect Herb Clutter's sense of responsibility and need to do things right. The Clutter house, which is large, "handsome," and sits at the end of a long driveway shaded by rows of Chinese elm trees, impresses everyone who sees it, and reflects Herb and Bonnie Clutter's commitment to home and family. Bonnie spends most of her days in a small, sparsely furnished bedroom, which has a bed, a bureau, a bedside table, a lamp, and a picture of Jesus "walking on the water." A virtual prisoner of her depression, Bonnie rarely leaves this room. Bubbly, outgoing Nancy Clutter has decorated her bedroom, in which everything is pink, white, or blue, with feminine fabrics, lots of photos, a vanity with her beauty supplies, and a pink-and-white teddy bear on a chair. Finally, Kenyon Clutter, a solitary boy, spends most of his free time in the basement working on carpentry, making such things as shelves and a ping-pong table. The room is filled with his woodwork and inventions along with Nancy's needlework, including pillows with upbeat words and sayings embroidered on them.

How do Herb Clutter's financial practices, detailed in In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 4) affect the plot of the novel?

Herb Clutter has his insurance broker, Bob Johnson, meet with him at the Clutter house on the last day the Clutters are alive. Herb buys a $40,000 life insurance policy with double indemnity and makes the first payment on it. He pays by check, and Bob Johnson teases him about writing checks for everything. Herb is famous in town for never carrying cash on him. While doing business, he will only write checks, and he likes to explain why—he believes cancelled checks will serve as receipts and thus serve him well "when those tax fellows come poking around." This practice of Herb's to never have cash around affects the plot when Dick Hickock and Perry Smith break into the Clutter house, intent on robbing it, and Herb has no money to give them. Dick finds $30 in Herb's wallet, and Herb says this is the only cash he has because he always does business by check. He offers to write Dick and Perry a check, but Dick "just bl[ows] up." Herb also says there is no safe in the house, despite what Floyd Wells has told Dick; this must have fueled Dick's rage all the more. However, because Dick has planned to leave no survivors, it is possible that Herb's aversion to carrying cash made no difference in his fate at the hands of the murderers.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 4) what lie does Perry Smith tell Dick Hickock, and how does it affect the plot?

To impress Dick Hickock, Perry Smith lies and says he once killed a black man in Las Vegas for no reason, simply "for the hell of it." This lie makes Dick think Perry is a natural killer who will have no problem carrying out Dick's plan to rob the Clutters and leave no one alive. Perry, in turn, becomes the murderer Dick thinks and wants him to be. Not only does Perry end up committing murder at the Clutter home, later in the story, he nearly kills a man he and Dick get a ride from while hitchhiking. On Dick's silent orders, Perry gets ready to bash the man's head in, but the man unwittingly saves his own life by pulling over and stopping the car to pick up a third hitchhiker. The lie is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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