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In Cold Blood | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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What are the reasons Perry Smith loathes his sister, Barbara Johnson, as revealed in In Cold Blood, Parts Unknown (Part 4)?

As Perry Smith goes through his boxes of mementos in the Mexico hotel room, trying to decide what he cannot leave behind, he finds a letter from his sister, Barbara Johnson. In it, she states that the members of the family cannot blame anyone else for what happens in their lives. She also tells Perry he broke their father's heart. The abuse at the hands of his parents and others led Perry to go out on his own; he ended up stealing to survive and landed himself in jail. Barbara lays all the blame on Perry's shoulders, absolving their father of his mistreatment of his wife and children, and doesn't offer Perry any help. Her letter infuriates Perry. His prison friend, Willie-Jay, has told Perry such letters would only make Perry's "already dangerous anti-social instincts" stronger.

In In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 1) why does Floyd Wells keep what he knows about the murders to himself for several weeks?

When Floyd Wells hears about the murders, he keeps what he knows to himself because he is afraid the other inmates will take revenge on him for talking about another prisoner's involvement in a crime. If an inmate were to talk to the warden about someone else's "scores," as Floyd says in his interview, his life "wouldn't be worth a dead coyote." He also thinks he might be accused of being an accessory to the murder; he has provided Dick Hickock information and answered all of his questions about the Clutters' house layout, who was in the family, and how rich Herb Clutter was. It may seem strange Floyd gives Dick all this information on the Clutters because Floyd had liked Herb Clutter and found him to be a fair boss who paid well. But Floyd doesn't think Dick would do anything with the information. Floyd eventually confides in another prisoner, who helps arrange for Floyd to be called to the deputy warden's office on a pretext. Floyd is thus able to talk without other prisoners being the wiser. Although Floyd eventually collects a reward for coming forward, his guilty conscience initially drives him to do the right thing.

In In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 1) why do Dick Hickock's parents think he is involved in a crime?

Walter Hickock tells KBI agent Harold Nye his son Dick Hickock had been involved in criminal behavior since his accident, which changed him. Walter also reveals Dick changed after he did time in prison; he became a "plain stranger" to his parents, but lately he has seemed to be settling down. Mr. Hickock thus can't figure out why, as Nye informs him, Dick has violated his parole and passed bad checks. Dick knows his father is losing his fight with cancer and has promised his father he wouldn't do anything more to hurt him. Eunice Hickock, Dick's mother, is convinced Perry Smith—whom she refuses to have in her house—has put Dick "up to writing them bad checks." Both of Dick's parents know their son's history with small crimes, but they both, in their own ways, try to provide excuses for his criminal behavior.

How does Agent Harold Nye confirm that Dick Hickock and Perry Smith had enough time to commit the murders in In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 1)?

When Agent Harold Nye visits Dick Hickock's parents, they tell him Dick and Perry Smith left Olathe on Saturday morning, November 14, to drive to Fort Scott, where Perry's sister lives. She is holding money for him, they explain, and he has come to Kansas mainly to collect it. In Fort Scott, Dick and Perry discover that Perry's sister had moved. They stay overnight in Fort Scott. Dick returns to his parents' house on Sunday before noon after dropping Perry off at his hotel in Olathe. Nye calculates Perry and Dick would have had enough time to drive from Olathe to Holcomb, murder the Clutters, and drive back within 24 hours. The fact that Dick had uncharacteristically fallen asleep right after Sunday dinner at his parents' house, woke only to eat some cold supper later, and then returned to bed told Nye he had done something strenuous while he was away.

In In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 2) why does Harold Nye ask Barbara Johnson if she ever lived in Fort Scott, and what does her answer signify?

Harold Nye asks Barbara Johnson if she had ever lived in Fort Scott because Perry Smith and Dick Hickock told Dick's parents they'd driven there to collect money Perry's sister was holding for him. Dick also tells his parents they never found Perry's sister, who must have moved. But Barbara Johnson tells Nye not only has she never lived in Fort Scott, she has never even been to Kansas. Her answer indicates Dick has lied to his parents about driving with Perry to Fort Scott, confirming Nye's suspicion that Dick and Perry have, in fact, traveled to Holcomb to murder the Clutters. When Nye asks Barbara if she has a sister who lived in Fort Scott, she replies that her only sister is dead. Nye's smile at this moment tells the reader the conversation with Barbara is an important clue in the case.

In In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 2) why is Barbara Johnson afraid of her brother, Perry Smith?

In speaking with Agent Nye, Barbara Johnson admits she is afraid of her brother, who began to get in trouble very early in life and exhibited flares of rage. She recalls one incident in particular: Perry Smith, who'd been drinking, pinned her against a wall, told her he hated her, and threatened to throw her in the river if she didn't listen to him. He told her he'd once thrown a man off a bridge in Japan. Barbara tells Nye her brother could "seem so warmhearted," and cries easily. But his rage would erupt when he spoke about having been deprived of an education by their father, who had allowed Barbara and their other brother and sister to go to school. Barbara perceives her brother as arrogant, dangerous, self-serving, and capable of violence—all of which are shown in the text to be true.

In In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 3) why does it take the KBI agents so long to find and arrest the perpetrators of the Clutter murders?

Based on Floyd Wells's story and what Agent Harold Nye has learned from Dick Hickock's parents and Perry Smith's sister, Alvin Dewey and his team feel Perry and Dick are plausible suspects. But no solid supporting evidence has been found to connect them with the Clutter murders. It is possible that Floyd Wells has lied; the Clutter case had a very high profile, and prisoners were known to lie to get noticed and pocket monetary rewards for talking. None of the people Alvin Dewey's agents have questioned have been able to provide information on the suspects' whereabouts, and Dewey cannot release any details of the case for fear it will alert the suspects and make them impossible to find. Furthermore, Dewey is fairly sure they would have gotten rid of any evidence, such as their shoes, because they were smart enough to remove the shotgun shells from the Clutter house.

In In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 3) what does Dick Hickock's reason for not visiting his parents after the murders reveal about his criminal mind?

When Perry Smith and Dick Hickock return to Kansas City after the murders, Dick tells Perry he wishes he could visit his parents, or even call them—but they don't have a telephone. He is ashamed of the bad checks he has written and what his mother will say about them. He also knows his parents, who have little money, will likely end up paying for the bad checks he had left in his wake. Yet Dick has, as usual, put himself first. His criminal mind always looks for the easiest and most self-serving thing to do, and after doing it, he moves on, not bothered by or interested in reflecting on his actions. He treats passing bad checks in as cavalier a manner as he does committing murder.

In In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 3) how does Alvin Dewey's dream foreshadow what actually happens the next day?

Alvin Dewey has a dream about Dick Hickock and Perry Smith showing up in town, being spotted by Dewey and Clarence Duntz, and then leading the investigators on a hide-and-seek chase that ends up at the cemetery. There, Dewey, alone now with the killers, watches as they stand over the Clutters' graves and laugh. Dewey fires at them repeatedly, hitting them three times each in the heart, but they continue to laugh as they turn transparent and then invisible, leaving Dewey "filled with a despair" so strong it wakes him up. The next day, Harold Nye calls Dewey to say their suspects are in Kansas City where Dick has been writing bad checks using his real name. However, Dewey is not excited about this development because his dream makes him believe the two killers are "invulnerable." Sure enough, before investigators can find the suspects, they leave Kansas City and head for Miami, unaware they have been identified and are being pursued.

In In Cold Blood, Answer (Part 4) what does Alvin Dewey want to keep from Dick Hickock and Perry Smith when they were arrested, and why?

Alvin Dewey does not want Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to know the real reason for their arrest. Dewey's strategy to get the two men to admit their guilt is to let them think they are guilty only of bad check charges and parole violations, then shock them with the fact that they are suspects in the Clutter case. Because Dewey does not have a lot of hard, serious evidence linking Dick and Perry to the crime, he needs to get them to confess they murdered the Clutters before something goes wrong that might allow them to get away with the crime.

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