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Hickock had learned about Herbert Clutter’s wealth from Floyd Wells, a cellmate who had worked on his River Valley farm, and he dreamed of robbing Clutter when he got out of prison.Hickock was unaware that Clutter paid his bills with checks and never kept cash in the house, so that Hickock and Smith end up with very little booty for all of their bloody business.Hickock and Smith are approximately the same age—twenty-eight and thirty, respectively—and both are seasoned veterans of scrapes with the law and of incarceration.
Asked by one of the arresting officers why he has fallen back into a life of crime, Hickock replies: “That would make a book.” The lengthy and meticulous research that Capote undertook in order to put together that book also makes him alter ego to Alvin Dewey, the leader of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation team assembled to solve the homicides.
A friend of Herbert Clutter and, like the slain man, an exemplary Midwestern citizen, Dewey becomes obsessed with solving the puzzle of who killed the Clutters and why.
If the subject of is apprehension—of an unknown horror threatening the normality of Holcomb, of the vagrant malefactors, of the intractable truth— its principal characters are Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.
The two had met at the Kansas State Penitentiary, and later it is an urgent message from Hickock to Smith summoning him to a “score” that sets the mechanism of murder into motion.
Smith is a social misfit diagnosed by a court-appointed psychiatrist as a paranoid schizophrenic.
Hickock, a skilled auto mechanic, prides himself on his practicality, while Smith is a dreamer who fantasizes about prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre.
Capote appears more sympathetic to Smith than to Hickock, perhaps because he recognizes a kindred spirit in the diminutive outcast with an ornate vocabulary (Smith is, for example, fond of the word “ineffable”).
Hickock mocks Smith’s lavish experiments in music and poetry, but Capote records them solicitously.
Its title refers as much to the novelist’s efforts at being a taxidermist of reality as to the carnage of the Clutters’ murder.
“Most of my ideas for stories, I get them out of the newspapers,” says Larry Hendricks, an aspiring writer new to Kansas, and he expresses Capote’s own ambivalence regarding literary invention.