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In Cold Blood | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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In Cold Blood | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In the novel In Cold Blood, what role do knots play in the investigation of the murders?

Knots play an important role in the investigation because the Clutters are all tied, hand and foot, using the same kind of knot—a hitch knot. Alvin Dewey believed this means one person has tied up the four family members. When Harold Nye visits the rooming house in Las Vegas where Perry Smith has stayed, the landlady gives him the cardboard box, tied with a cord, that Perry asked her to keep for him. Nye immediately hopes to find the knot is a hitch knot; this would have directly tied Perry to the Clutter murders. Perry Smith could have learned to tie knots while in the Merchant Marines or from his father, a cowboy who'd worked the rodeo circuit. The knot in the box is not, however, a hitch knot.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 1) why does Alvin Dewey not reveal to the press or public the two distinct footprints found at the murder scene?

Alvin Dewey probably decides to keep the footprints secret because publicizing the fact that there are two—each with a distinct, identifiable type of sole—would reveal how many suspects the investigators are seeking. Also, if this information were revealed by the press and the suspects heard about the footprints—one with a diamond-patterned sole, the other with a cat's paw half sole—via the media, they would most likely destroy the shoes they had been wearing the night of the murders. These footprints are the only "serious clues" Dewey has in the investigation at this point; nothing else has been found at the Clutter crime scene.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 1) how does the murder change the way the people of Holcomb interact with each other?

The Clutter murders cause neighbors to be suspicious of one another for the first time in Holcomb, a small village where, before the crime, people had never locked their doors. Holcomb residents worry someone in town or nearby must have committed the crime out of revenge, although the Clutters' popularity also makes such a thought terrifying. After word of the murders spread and people learn the perpetrators had entered the Clutter house through an unlocked door, locks and bolts become the "fastest-going" items in the local hardware store. Entire families sit up from dusk until dawn, with every light in their home lit, "wide awake, watchful, listening," afraid what has befallen the Clutters can happen again. As time passes without an arrest being made, people in Holcomb remain vigilant, watchful, and distrustful of each other. Even Marie Dewey, Alvin Dewey's wife, changes the locks on their doors. The town is full of theories, and most suggest the killer has to be one of their own.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 1) why is it significant that Perry Smith begins to suspect Dick Hickock is only pretending to believe in his schemes?

After the murders, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith return to Kansas City to make some cash by passing bad checks. Despite their ending up with a "fair stake" and enough cash to get them to Mexico, Perry notices Dick isn't his usual self; he seems depressed. Dick admits to Perry he is worried his parents, especially his father, who is old, sick, and does not have much, will end up paying for Dick's bad checks when they bounce. And when Perry suggests they can pay off the checks once they get busy with his get-rich schemes in Mexico—hunting for gold and buried treasure, buying a boat and renting it out, or driving stolen cars across the border—Dick does not instantly reassure Perry. Perry suddenly doubts and mistrusts Dick in the beginning of the end of their solidarity. Eventually, Dick will turn on Perry and blame him for the murders.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 2) how does the letter from Mr. Howard Fox, Bonnie Clutter's brother, published in the Telegram, reflect the title of the novel?

Capote chose the book's title because although the murders had been done in cold blood, he believed capital punishment—death by hanging in Kansas—was merciless killing, too, which was carried out by the state and the justice system. In his letter published in the Garden City Telegram, Bonnie Clutter's brother, Howard Fox, asks people not to demand the deaths of the murderers nor to hold grudges against them. Instead, Mr. Fox asks everyone to forgive and pray for the murderers, who would have a terrible time living with what they had done. Mr. Fox knows nothing will bring his sister, her husband, and their children back; thus, he reasons nothing would be gained or solved by taking two more lives. Capote clearly agrees with this stance.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 3) how does Perry Smith show he did know right from wrong?

Perry Smith shows that he does, in fact, know right from wrong by bringing up the murders with Dick Hickock, even though they have agreed not to talk about it again once they committed the crime and were on the road, making their escape. When they stop to have a picnic, Perry starts talking and tells Dick there must be something really wrong with them to have committed the murders. Perry had thought "deep down" he was not capable of doing such a thing, and he is surprised to have actually done it. He admits "way rock-bottom" he never thought he could have killed the Clutters as he did. He is also sure no one could get away with such a crime, and feels someone will eventually figure things out and come looking for them. Dick, in contrast, feels he is completely normal; only Perry has something wrong with him. While both men are guilty and have psychological problems, Capote indicates that of the two, only Perry deserves any sympathy from the reader.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 1) what is the significance of the yellow bird for Perry Smith?

The yellow bird signifies a savior to Perry Smith, something to save him from harm and fly him away to a safe and perfect place. The bird first appeared to him in his dreams when he was only seven years old. His mother had placed him in an orphanage, and the nuns would beat him for wetting his bed and being half-Indian. After one nun beat him with a flashlight one night—and continued to beat the boy even after the flashlight broke—the yellow bird appeared to Perry when he slept. It was "taller than Jesus, yellow like a sunflower," and it attacked the nuns, blinding them with its beak, killing them as they cried for mercy, and then flew Perry off to "paradise" and safety. Whenever he was being mistreated, beaten, or abused as a child, the yellow bird appeared to save him. As Perry grew up and faced others who hurt him—his father, men in the Merchant Marines, a sergeant in the army—the bird stayed with him. He does not tell Dick about it because he fears Dick will laugh.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 3) what does Dick Hickock's hitting a dog on the highway reveal about him?

Dick Hickock sees an old, sick dog on the side of the road and purposefully swerves to hit it, saying to Perry Smith, "Boy, we sure splattered him!" This shows how callous Dick is and how he is dissociated from his feelings. Although Dick tells Perry (who has expressed a sense that there is something wrong with them, given what they have done to the Clutters) he is normal, Dick clearly is not. He can't sustain normal relationships with anyone, and although he can give orders to kill, he cannot actually kill anything but the pitiful target of a half-starved dog on the side of the road.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 3) what explanation is given for why Herb Clutter does not try to fight his murderers?

In Persons Unknown (Part 3), Mrs. Ashida recalls her last conversation with Herb Clutter to Mrs. Hartman at the café. She says she had told Herb she couldn't ever imagine him afraid, and no matter the situation, she was sure he could talk his way out of it. Mrs. Ashida feels this is probably why Herb didn't try to fight off his attackers. She believes Herb had, as was his customary way, tried to talk sense to them. In addition, Herb didn't believe anyone would harm him. As the killers tied everyone up, Herb kept trying to comfort his wife, convinced the men just needed money, and he thought if he offered to write them a check he could stop them. Herb Clutter did not know his life was in danger until Perry slit his throat.

In In Cold Blood, Persons Unknown (Part 4) what makes Perry Smith begin to hate his father, and how does it impact his personality?

Perry Smith begins to hate his father as Perry gets older and sees his father's limitations. As Perry's interests develop—he likes music and can play the harmonica and guitar; he likes to read and improve his vocabulary; he also likes to draw—he realizes his father doesn't see him as a person with needs, wishes, likes, and dreams of his own. When the hunting lodge Perry helps his father build fails, Perry's father takes out his disappointment on his son. When they argue over food one day, Perry's father pulls a gun on him. As a result, Perry searches for a father figure. He may have joined up with Dick Hickock because Dick seemed masculine and in control; he also made Perry feel they had a relationship. Perry probably craves this because he hates both his father and his only living sibling, his sister, Barbara Johnson.

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