Summary and Analysis
Floyd Wells, a former cell mate of Dick Hickock, hears about the Clutter family murders and is struck with the realization that he knows who killed them and why. A former employee of Herbert Clutter, Wells remembers that he had told Dick about the Clutter family, revealing details about the house and its occupants. Wells realized that Dick believed, based on Well's account of his own employment there, that there would be a safe in the office.
While Capote revealed the identity of the killers at the very beginning of the novel, he kept both a motive and any connection between the murderers and the Clutters to himself. Sometimes, Capote's writing suggested that even the killers themselves didn't know why they chose this family to kill. But here, finally, a motive surfaces — robbery. Dick Hickock was misled into believing there was a safe on the Clutter property. This is one of a series of small, seemingly insignificant details that contributed to the fate of the Clutter family.
Al Dewey learns about Dick and Perry and the potential that they are the murderers, but he decides not the reveal details about the pair to the public or media. He is cautious because of the lack of physical evidence connecting Dick and Perry to the crime. What's more, Dewey believes, even if robbery was the motive, the lack of money in the Clutter household would not be enough to cause Dick and Perry to murder the whole family. Regardless, Dewey receives files on Dick and Perry, including photographs of the men. Dewey's wife recoils upon seeing the two men, convinced that they were the last people the Clutters saw. Herbert Nye resolves to track down Dick and Perry. Nye visits the homes of their families and the pawn shops where Dick had been hocking stolen goods (but not the Zenith radio), and he comes to a hotel where the pair had been staying — where Perry's box of journals and memorabilia was being kept for him. Nye visits Perry's sister, who remains pleasant but holds nothing back in her description of Perry as someone she fears, while at the same time someone she deeply loves and worries about.
Perry and Dick get picked up by a driver — the perfect target for them to murder in order to steal the car. But at the last possible second the driver picks up another hitch-hiker in what Perry calls a "goddamn miracle."
Despite the threat of being discovered, Perry and Dick then decide to return to Kansas City because they believe it to be the best place for Dick to con his way into more money. While Perry remains worried about being so close to the crime scene, they make their way to the town, where Dick runs his scam and gets some money, and the two of them leave without incident. By returning and again leaving Kansas without incident, Dick and Perry become convinced that they will never be connected to the Clutter murders. As they continue their journey westward, they pick up a boy of about twelve and his grandfather. The four of them make a slow journey through the dessert, picking up empty soda bottles to turn in for cash.
The arrest occurs in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959. Dick and Perry are captured by Las Vegas police, based on the license plate number of the stolen car they were driving. Al Dewey is informed of the arrest as his wife is preparing for a party. The two of them embrace, and Al apologizes for "spoiling" her party. She assures her husband that it's the best way he could have spoiled it, as they will soon be living a normal life again.
Dick and Perry are interrogated by police, both believing that they are being arrested for parole violations and Dick's bad check schemes. Harold Nye and Roy Church interview Dick, who is proud to confess that he cons people by writing back checks. Dick becomes even more lax when the questioning turns to his personal life and history. When the conversation comes to the night of the Clutter murders, Dick details a story that he and Perry invented and rehearsed in which they stayed in a cabin with two prostitutes. Nye tells Perry that he is a murder suspect in the Clutter case and that there is a living witness. Perry finally admits that the story about the cabin is a lie, and Dick realizes that the witness is his ex-cellmate, and both men begin to unravel. Finally, Dick tells the investigators that it was Perry who killed the family and that he was unable to stop Perry from killing them all.
The news of the arrests arrives in Holcomb and received as an anti-climax. The people of Holcomb were almost disappointed that the murderer was not acquainted with the Clutters, and that the killer wasn't walking among them.
As Dewey and Duntz transport Perry back to Kansas, he gives the ultimate confession, recounting the murders in incredible detail. Perry reveals that Mr. Clutter cooperated with the home invaders up until he realized that his family was in mortal danger, when his own throat was slit. Then, he broke free of his restraints and Perry shot him in the head. With a general sense of frenzy the other members were shot, perhaps all by Perry. Perry's disgust and irritation with Dick becomes clear — Dick had such bravado but wasn't able to follow through with the plan. The Clutter family was murdered because of Perry daring Dick to complete what he had started, but this became a frenzy of activity in which Perry seems to have acted alone. There is a question of whether or not Dick actually killed Nancy and Mrs. Clutter, but it remains unanswered.
Opening the chapter with Floyd Wells and titling the chapter "Answer" allows the reader to feel secure in the promise that finally, everything will be explained. Facts that had been provided to the reader in the first chapter, such as the journey that the two men took, driving eight hundred miles during a twenty-four hour period, are now discovered by Nye during his investigation. This is Capote's way of being both a journalist and novelist at the same time. Capote as journalist allows the reader to know how long the journey took; Capote as novelist allows Nye to be a character who discovers this later on.
Perry's assertion that a third hitchhiker intervened at a perfect moment of to unknowingly prevent further bloodshed indicates his belief in God. But Perry doesn't think he is the one being divinely protected, but rather he is something others need to be protected from. He has lost his own ethics and morality, and even some of his humanity. Noting that the driver they intended to kill has five children is enough to catch his attention, but not enough to quell the urge to kill him, especially when the intended victim reminds Perry of his own father.
After the visit from Nye, Perry's sister admits to herself that she lives in fear of both Perry and her own genes; she has increasing anxiety that she will somehow become as corrupt as her other family members. Her dual reactions to thinking about Perry as both a child and as a man is reflected in the way that Capote's text treats him, describing him at times as impulsive and sentimental, and then brutal and sociopathic. Like the narrative, Perry's sister is intimately involved, completely immersed, and deeply confused as to how to approach or correctly interpret Perry's motives and feelings, but she still struggles to do so. Her voice shows signs of both affection for her brother and fear of him, and this is a metaphor for Capote's own ambivalence and urge to define Perry completely. Meanwhile, when Perry was waiting for Dick's return, he thinks about his sister and joyfully envisioning that he can show her what he is capable of doing to "respectable people." This indicates that Perry's act of violence against the Clutters was, in part, an act of revenge against the world outside of his grasp. His need to appear civilized, educated and compassionate is only an illusion to mask his anger at those who actually are. This is further evidenced by his treatment of and compassion for the young boy and his grandfather who traveled with them. Perry identifies with the boy and remembers his own journey with his father in tow, and he becomes steadfast in his commitment to help them. Perry's need to appear to be a good person, at least to himself, is crucial. He becomes almost melodramatic in his statements and actions.
The toll the investigation has taken on the Dewey family is evidenced by Dewey's wife's reaction: She's not as happy that the killers have been captured as she is about her family returning to "normal." Dewey's son's fear of the men being brought back to Kansas and close to his family is also significant; the killers have become larger than life monsters in the eyes of a child. Al Dewey comforts his son by assuring him that now Perry and Dick will never hurt anyone again. The true possibility that they would have done just that is peppered through the novel, from the murders to their capture: their intention of murdering the driver who gave them a ride, the interest Dick takes in the twelve-year-old girl, Dick's thoughts of killing Perry and Perry's similar interest in killing Dick. The two men are waiting for the opportunity to kill again and to relive the Clutter murders in some real way as a method of defining themselves as capable of the worst.
When describing the investigation, Capote carefully and selectively reveals information. The interrogation "gradually narrowed the prisoner's life story to the events of the last seven weeks, then reduced those to a concentrated recapitulation of the crucial weekend." Finally, there is a promise in the text: "they were not far from coming to the point." This is also the promise of the novel: The slow, methodically detailed narrative since the start will now reveal the whole story, nothing will be left out, and in the end the slow journey will be worthwhile once the reader has all the answers.
Capote's use of dual narratives (one being that of the Clutters and the townspeople being and the other being that of the two killers) comes to a head during the interrogation. Al Dewey ends his conversation with Perry by telling him that it would have been Nancy's birthday the next day and that "She would have been seventeen." Capote repeats that sentence in the following paragraph, indicating that the two halves have finally met and that the journey has come full circle.
The book, until the scene of Perry's confession, is all in past tense. The text makes a switch during Perry's confession to present tense, but then switches back to past after the scene is over. This switch indicates the end of a journey. The past is behind the narrator, and the present is here, in the car with Perry as he tells his story. This is the moment that everything has been leading up to. While Dewey and the reader may sympathize with Perry for his childhood experiences, Perry cannot be forgiven. This is the theme of the book, that a complete understanding of an individual and empathy for their experiences does not indicate a necessity for absolution. The journalistic voice and commitment to detail, along with the prose style, has brought us a full portrait of what creates evil, but it does not shy away from relating what it looks like.