Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (1965) – Novel

Truman Capote’s true crime novel In Cold Blood (1965) represents his attempt to generate a new genre, the ‘nonfiction novel’, which informatively tells the factual story of a historical episode but employs the more engaging literary techniques of a writer of fiction.  As his subject, Capote chose to closely follow an episode in criminal history as it unfolded, from the time when the first newspaper report alerted Capote and the rest of the American public to the crime. The novel tells the story of the robbery and murder of four members of the Clutter family in rural Kansas by two career-criminals, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith who are subsequently arrested, tried, convicted and executed.

Consequently, the novel serves to thoroughly educate its readers about its subject, just as a well-researched historical account would, by detailing each dimension of the story: the process by which a horrible crime was committed; the shocking discovery of the bodies; the impact of it on a small, devout, rural community in Kansas; the investigative procedures, the perceptions and attitudes of the detectives engaged in the initially puzzling investigation that had few leads and few clues; the thoughts and behaviour of the criminals before the crime and later while they were fugitives; the backgrounds of the four victims and of the two criminals whose paths intersected one fateful night; the psychiatric assessments of the criminals; the process of the arrest and interrogation of the suspects; the procedure of a murder trial where the accused would face execution if convicted; the experience of incarceration on ‘death row’; the appeals process used to attempt to have the death sentences commuted to life imprisonment; and, finally, the execution of the convicted men.

Meanwhile, Capote seeks to make his audience more engaged with the story by using many of the novelist’s emotive and dramatic techniques to position his readers to be moved by the dramatic episodes in the story and be held in suspense by its intrigues and surprises even though he was writing about events that had happened and were on the public record and he was constrained by his desire to tell the story truthfully without fictional embellishment.

While doing this, Capote invites his readers to reflect on the causes of violent criminality.  Is it nature or nurture?  Capote presents evidence that can be interpreted both ways.  However, he uses the criminal Perry Smith to suggest that criminals are created by traumatic childhood and other similar later experiences.  Capote seems to support liberal law reform, such as rehabilitation, and he also seems opposed to capital punishment, again using the character Perry Smith to make that case.

The novel presents its story in great detail.  In regards to the detail about the lives of murdered family members and the nature of their community, this serves to vividly express the enormous disruption, injustice, fear and grief caused by criminal violence.  In regards to the detail about the lives of the two criminals, this serves to highlight the nature and definitive characteristics of individuals with an antisocial personality disorder who become career criminals.

The novel’s parallel stories, one story depicting the two career criminals and the other story depicting the wholesome Clutter family whom they murdered, creates the impression that the criminals and their victims came from two widely different worlds, two contrasting Americas, one being quiet, comfortable, affluent and complacent and the other being deprived, dysfunctional, desperate, parasitic and vicious.

© Mark Lopez 2019  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Student Resources by Dr Mark Lopez (Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell)

In Cold Blood meaning, In Cold Blood themes, In Cold Blood analysis, In Cold Blood notes

The purpose of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal. (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.)