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In Cold Blood | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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In Cold Blood | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Last to See Them Alive

In the opening section of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote describes the little town of Holcomb, Kansas, and the people who knew Herb Clutter and his family. The title of the section refers not only to the last residents of Holcomb and nearby Garden City to see the Clutter family alive but also to Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the two perpetrators of the murders.

In the small village of Holcomb in western Kansas, most residents know prosperous wheat farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and their teenage children still living in the house, daughter Nancy and son Kenyon. (The Clutters also have two adult daughters, Eveanna and Beverly.) Capote describes in detail their personalities, their activities, and whom they saw on Saturday, November 14, 1959, the day of their murders, along with the layout of the Clutter property.

To heighten suspense, Capote alternates between the family's day and Dick and Perry's preparations to rob and kill the Clutters. In the small town of Olathe, Kansas, 400 miles away, Perry Smith waits for Dick Hickock. The two ex-cons have recently been paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary. Dick has written to Perry explaining how another inmate, Floyd Wells, told him about a rich farmer in Holcomb for whom Floyd had worked; the farmer has a safe containing $10,000 in his house. Dick proposes the plan for a "perfect score"—they will rob the Clutters, leave no witnesses, and escape to Mexico. Dick picks up Perry and they drive to Holcomb, buying gloves, tape, and rope along the way. They pull into the Clutter driveway in the early hours of the morning.

On Sunday, Susan Kidwell and Nancy Ewalt discover the body of their friend Nancy Clutter in her bedroom. The sheriff and others then arrive at the Clutter farm to investigate and find the other members of the family tied up and shot in separate parts of the house. The sheriff describes the scene he encounters and mentions that he finds one bloody footprint on the mattress box on which Herb Clutter's body sprawled.

Persons Unknown

In this part of the novel, Capote describes the team assembled to investigate the case. Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) heads up the team, and 18 investigators are put on the case. Clarence Duntz, Roy Church, and Harold Nye are the major detectives on the team, and the three spread out looking for where the killer or killers might have headed. Bobby Rupp, Nancy's boyfriend, is questioned but passes a lie detector test. Alfred Stoecklein, the hired man who lives on the property, is also questioned, but he and his wife have been up at alternate times all night with a sick baby and haven't heard a gun go off.

The residents of Holcomb, struggling to believe strangers could have committed such horrific murders, begin to suspect and distrust one another. Two families leave town, too scared to stay; others lock their doors for the first time. As leads on the Clutter killers turn out to be dead ends, the grown Clutter daughter, Beverly, has her wedding to Vere English early because everyone is in town for her family's funeral.

As the investigation continues and those in Holcomb struggle to deal with the tragedy, Perry and Dick make their way across the country to Mexico. Perry, whose abusive childhood has rendered him "antisocial," questions newspaper accounts reporting no clues were left behind at the Clutter murder scene. Perry knows Floyd Wells could talk to the authorities, linking Dick Hickock—and thus him—to the murders.


After hearing about the Clutter murder on the radio, a distraught Floyd Wells finally admits what he knows to the deputy and the prison warden. With Perry Smith and Dick Hickock identified, investigators interview their respective family members, but no one knows where the two men might be.

The break in the case comes largely because Perry wants to return to Las Vegas to pick up packages containing personal items he has mailed to himself. From Mexico Dick and Perry move on to Kansas City, and then to Florida, along the way passing bad checks and stealing a car before heading for Vegas. Investigators are hot on their trail by this time and arrest them in Vegas as they arrive at Perry's rooming house.

Dewey and his investigators question the two suspects separately in interrogation rooms at the Las Vegas city jail. The two investigators who question Dick say he left a witness to the crime, and Dick immediately blames Perry for all four murders. The detectives use this information during the ride back to Kansas to get Perry to admit to the crimes. Once Perry realizes Dick has turned on him and talked, he tells the whole story, revealing the brutality of the murders and how the Clutters had suffered.

The Corner

The last section of the novel gives an account of the testimony at the trial of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith and follows the murderers to their execution. During the trial, neither Dick Hickock nor Perry Smith takes the stand. All those who have seen the aftermath of the murders testify. Floyd Wells details his prison-cell conversation with Dick about the Clutters. Alvin Dewey testifies about Dick's and Perry's admissions of guilt. Dewey also tells the court about Dick's intention to rape Nancy Clutter and how Perry stopped him. Dewey states how Dick insisted Perry was the killer, and Perry, who has retracted his original statement about Dick killing the Clutter women, admits he killed the whole family because he felt Dick could not commit a murder.

On the stand, the psychiatrist who interviewed and evaluated both defendants is only allowed to answer "yes" or "no" as to whether they can understand right from wrong. Dick and Perry are found guilty on four counts of murder each and sentenced to death, because in Kansas life imprisonment would mean they could be out on parole after serving only 15 years. Perry and Dick are given several reprieves and spend five years on death row. They are finally executed by hanging in the early morning hours of April 14, 1965, at the warehouse gallows known to inmates as The Corner.

In Cold Blood Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Perry Smith and Dick Hickock meet and drive to Holcomb.

Rising Action

2 Perry Smith and Dick Hickock murder the Clutters.

3 Susan Kidwell and Nancy Ewalt find Nancy Clutter's body.

4 KBI agents Dewey and Nye lead the investigation.

5 The Clutter funeral and Beverly's wedding are held.

6 Smith and Hickock travel from Mexico to Kansas to Florida.

7 Floyd Wells tells the prison warden about Dick Hickock.

8 Harold Nye conducts important interviews.

9 Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are arrested in Las Vegas.

10 Hickock confesses and blames Smith for all the murders.


11 Perry Smith confesses to two murders.

Falling Action

12 Dick Hickock and Perry Smith's murder trial begins.

13 Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are found guilty and sentenced.

14 The first execution date is postponed due to an appeal.


15 Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are hanged.

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