Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 - The Last to See Them Alive
The Clutter family is introduced on November 15, 1959, the day they were murdered, through the eyewitness accounts of friends and neighbors who spent time with them before the Clutters met their fates. They are a tight-knit, all-American family unit. Herb Clutter spends his day running the ranch, supervising his employees. He is a good employer, offering decent wages and personal help to anyone who works for him. His one rule is that he will not employ anyone who drinks or keeps alcohol. His daughter Nancy is a thriving, popular, attractive, and kind teenage girl who dreams of moving to New York and attending college. Nancy is described as the "town darling." She has long been dating a local boy named Bobby Rupp, but she sees no solid future with him. Herb's wife and the mother of their children, Bonnie Clutter, suffers severe bouts with post-partum (called "post-natal" within the text) depression after the births of her four children. She remains bedridden and miserable while her daughter and husband run the household. The youngest Clutter, Kenyon, spends his days constructing, deconstructing, and rebuilding various electronics and gadgets. He is highly intelligent and has the promise of growing up to become an engineer or inventor.
Unbeknownst to the Clutters, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock are making their way to the Clutter home with the intention of murdering them all. Despite the lack of a clear motive, Dick is bloodthirsty; he plans to leave no witnesses and to blast "hair" all over the walls. Perry seems less enthusiastic about the potential for violence and pleads with Dick to buy stockings to disguise their faces. At first, Dick refuses, but eventually Perry convinces him to buy stockings to conceal their identities. Perry has an incredible, almost fanatical, interest in words and the English language. His sole motive for participating in this crime has nothing to do with greed or blood lust, all Perry wants is to stay with Dick long enough to reunite with his friend Willie-Jay, a former prison-mate and the focus of all of Perry's affection and actions. Meanwhile, Dick is fascinated by a story Perry once told him, in which Perry beat a man to death with a bicycle chain. Dick wants to see if Perry is, indeed, a true killer. After Dick and Perry murder the Clutters and the bodies are discovered, Perry and Dick are exhausted. Perry sleeps in his hotel room while Dick returns to the home of his parents', where he eats, watches basketball, and eventually falls asleep on the couch.
The writing in this first section of the book depicts the idyllic country life of the Clutters while simultaneously following the killers on their way to murder the whole family. This literary method of contrasting narratives establishes the characters of Herbert William Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, their two children Nancy and Kenyon, several townspeople, as well as Perry and Dick. The style is both journalistic and literary, and these two writing styles merge into a new type of book — the nonfiction novel — made popular by Capote.
The entire narrative focuses on the murder itself, and the crime is mentioned early on: "four shot gun blasts that, all told, ended six lives." This establishes the murder as the central event, but not what the narrative is leading up to. The six lives are those of the four members of the Clutter family, and those of the two murderers, who are eventually executed for their crimes. This establishes that the killers will eventually be caught, found guilty, and executed. By grouping the deaths together and attributing them without differentiation to the four shotgun blasts, Capote is directly establishing that his narration will treat all characters equally. This will not be narrative of victims and villains, but rather of an event, with all the characters having their own story.
Capote transitions between the actions of the Clutters and those of Perry and Dick so that they echo one another. For instance, Capote establishes that Mr. Clutter (as he is most often referred to in the text) abhors stimulants; and then Perry is introduced with the following sentence: "Like Mr. Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a café called the Little Jewel never drank coffee." This creates a link between the two characters and informs us that the humanity given to the Clutter family is also going to be granted, with the same intimate detail and complete authority, to Perry and Dick. However, the standard title given to Herbert Clutter is "Mr. Clutter," while Dick and Perry are called exclusively by their first names. This indicates more than the different classes of these men, but also shows that Capote doesn't have the same level of respect for the killers. He recognizes Dick and Perry as human beings who have both history and emotions, but he cannot grant them the equal status at Mr. Clutter because of their actions.
The foreshadowing of the murderers' intentions in the scenes leading up to the killings comes solely from Dick — who is eager to leave "no witnesses" and to leave "plenty of hair on them-those walls." These remarks, coupled with Dick's reluctance to disguise his face despite Perry's desire to do so, leads the reader to believe that it is Dick, primarily, who is responsible for the deaths of the Clutter family. The motive for the crime seems to be robbery, because Dick is talking about a "big score," but his overall focus seems to be on weapons, restraints, and a general eagerness to commit violence.
This chapter contains repeated references to the murders before they happen, including Perry and Dick planning the crime. The chapter also contains eyewitness accounts of the discovery of the Clutter family's bodies, and it documents how Bobby Rupp was considered a person of interest and given a lie detector test. But the murders, themselves, are not detailed. The action builds to the moment when Dick and Perry pull up to the Clutter home, and then slips past the crime, to resume the next morning, when Nancy and Susan find the bodies and Dick returns to his family home. The closing line of the first chapter states that Dick had "driven over eight hundred miles in the past twenty-four hours."
Capote's lack of describing the killings themselves makes it clear that Capote doesn't want to write a gruesome horror novel or sensationalize the crime. The fact that Capote reveals the identity of the killers early on also establishes that this isn't meant to be a mystery novel. Instead, the goal of the narration is to paint a clear and direct illustration of events. Capote takes everything into account, including the mindset, motivations, feelings and histories of the murderers. He is also being true to the Clutter family by detailing their strengths and weaknesses. Capote also describes the way the Clutters lived through the words offered by those who were the last to see them alive.
This chapter also alludes to the fact that Capote perceived somewhat of an unfulfilled romantic relationship between Dick and Perry. The two murderers remain faithful to one another in spite of each having potential alternatives; Dick refers to Perry as "honey" and dons the role of protector and teacher. Perry is clearly intrigued by Dick and analyzes his interests and behaviors; comparing Dick to Willie-Jay as a woman might a compare two potential suitors. Capote never refers to the two men as lovers, but romantic symbolism permeates the language he uses to describe them. For example, at one point, Capote states that Dick and Perry's journey to the Clutter home finds them "Scrubbed, combed, as tidy as two dudes setting off on a double date