In Cold Blood is a compelling nonfiction thriller about the quadruple homicide of the Clutter family in Kansas. It is plain exciting—and a little terrifying—guaranteeing student intrigue. 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 many consider the best nonfiction crime novel of all time. 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 the likely manipulation of facts to create a more compelling narrative. Something to consider: The surviving Clutter children Beverly and Eveanna, disapproved of the book and its legacy.

This work provides interesting social analysis and perspective on the criminal justice system. Students can discuss how Capote characterizes the perpetrators, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Students might also compare how this characterization affects readers’ understanding of the crime how traditional journalism might impact a reader. Classroom conversation can also focus on Capote’s implicit opposition to the death penalty, discussion of which would lend well to a debate concerning: 1) the degree of guilt of each of the two perpetrators and their mental states, and 2) the ethics of the death penalty when those factors are taken into account. You might also consider helping your class examine how these murders affected the entire community.

Summary of In Cold Blood

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1965
  • Length: 368 pages
  • Lexile® Measure: 1040
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11-12
  • New York Times bestseller

Capote’s nonfiction work details the 1959 murder 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.

What Your Students Will Love About In Cold Blood

  • 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 and whether they were guilty

Potential Student Struggles With In Cold Blood

  • 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 may be a new genre to your students.

Learning 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 these men to commit murder.
  • 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.
  • Debate the ethics of publishing books that are about real-life crimes.
  • Consider how Capote artistically manipulates the story to create a compelling work of literature.

Literary Elements in In Cold Blood

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

Major Themes in In Cold Blood

Crime — The book revolves around the murder of a family and the steps taken solve and understand a heinous crime.

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Ethics — In the book, Capote implicitly questions the ethics of the death penalty. Capote also published this novel six years after the murders, which poses the question of whether the content is verifiable, or if it is exaggerated for storytelling purposes.

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Justice — The novel is all about uncovering the truth of these gruesome deaths and bringing the murderers to justice.

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Other Resources

  • 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.

External Resources

Resource Format
In Cold Blood Paperback Student Edition
In Cold Blood Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
In Cold Blood AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

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