In Cold Blood is a compelling nonfiction thriller about the quadruple homicide of a family in Kansas. Truman Capote, along with Harper Lee, traveled to Kansas to write about the murders, and took down hundreds of pages of notes. Six years later, Capote published what is considered the best nonfiction crime novel. It is an excellent book to introduce students to the nonfiction novel genre, which Capote claimed to have invented with this work. The nature of this genre prompts class discussions on the ethics of writing books about real-life crimes and possible manipulation of facts to create a more compelling narrative.

This work provides interesting social analysis and a look into the criminal justice system. Students can discuss how Capote characterizes the perpetrators, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, and how that characterization affects readers' understanding of the crime in comparison to how the crime might be portrayed through traditional journalism. Classroom discussion can also focus on Capote's implicit opposition to the death penalty. This can lead to a debate concerning the degree of guilt of each of the two perpetrators and their mental states and the ethics of the death penalty when those factors are taken into account. Students can also examine how these murders affected the entire community.

Summary

Capote's nonfiction work details the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Through six years of research, Capote chronicles the Clutter family's last day, the actions of the killers, and the authority's investigation of the murder. The book explores the relationship between the two murderers, as well as their psychologies and backgrounds, in an attempt to better understand their motives and actions. After the criminals, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, are arrested, Capote follows their trials, convictions, and eventual executions.

Content Warning

In Cold Blood contains sex, violence, and profanity.

Objectives for Teaching
In Cold Blood

  • Define nonfiction novel and explain how In Cold Blood fits that genre.
  • Study the qualities of and the values held by the Holcomb community, and explain why setting is integral to the plot of the story.
  • Discuss the relationship between Dick Hickock and Perry Smith and how the combination of their personalities led to the murders.
  • Explain the evolution of and the reasons for the use of the death penalty in Kansas in the 1960s.
  • Describe how a traumatic event affects a community.
  • Compare arguments for and against publishing books that are about real-life crimes.
  • Consider how Capote artistically manipulates the story to make it a good work of literature.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Characterization
  • Foreshadowing
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Nonfiction Novel
  • Omniscient Narrator
  • Symbol

Themes and Motifs

  • Crime — The book revolves around the murder of a family and the steps it takes to truly solve a heinous crime.
  • Ethics — In the book, Capote implicitly questions the ethics of the death penalty. Capote also published this novel six years after the murders, so there is an ethical question of whether the content is verifiable or just tainted memory.
  • Justice —  The novel is all about finding the truth of the killings and bringing it to the light so the killers can be punished for the gruesome murders.

Related Works

Theme of Crime

 

Theme of Ethics

 

Theme of Justice

Key Facts

  • Length: 368 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1040
  • Publication Date: 1965
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Awards

  • New York Times Bestseller

Movies

The book was adapted into three films. The first film, In Cold Blood, was released in 1967 and focuses on the murders themselves. The two later films, the first titled Capote and released in 2005 and the second titled Infamous and released a year later, focus on Capote's actual investigation. However, all of the films are R-rated and may not be appropriate for the classroom.

 

Your students will love:

  • The fast-paced narrative of a crime thriller that is written about true events.
  • Coming up with their own opinions on who committed the crimes.

Students may have problems with:

  • The chilling descriptions of four gruesome murders that are not fabricated but taken from what Capote investigated.
  • Believing the book is entirely factual. There are holes throughout the novel and losses of time that students will have a hard time piecing together themselves.
  • The nonfiction novel—it's a new type of book and language to read and interpret.

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