The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of Western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call "out there." […] Not that there's much to see—simply an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the center by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe railroad […]. (1.1-2)
In the first sentence, we see the isolation of this kinda shabby little town in the middle of nowhere. This sets us up with a sense of foreboding—no one can hear you scream.
Situated at the end of a long, lanelike driveway shaded by rows of Chinese elms, the handsome white house, standing on an ample lawn of groomed Bermuda grass, impressed Holcomb; it was a place people pointed out." (1.12)
More isolation—that long driveway. It's true; no one hears them scream. The imagery of the Clutters' impressive house drives home to the reader how vulnerable they are, even with all their wealth and success.
In general, a prosperous people. Farm ranchers, most of them, they are outdoor folk of very varied stock—German, Irish, Norwegian, Mexican, Japanese. (1.4)
Are you surprised at the ethnic diversity in this small Kansas town? We sure were.
"We went around to the kitchen door, and of course it wasn't locked; the only person who locked doors around there was Mrs. Helm—the family never did." (1.19)
This detail clues us in to the sense of security that most townspeople felt. When you had so few neighbors and knew them all, you weren't afraid. A "home security system" back then probably consisted of your neighbors noticing anything strange going on. Like we said, sitting ducks. We bet those doors were locked after the murders.
Anyone who has made the coast-to-coast journey across America […] has probably passed through Garden City, but it is reasonable to assume that few travelers remember the event..[…] Not that the inhabitants would tolerate that opinion—perhaps rightly. […] "Look all over the world and you won't find friendlier people or fresher air or sweeter drinking water." […] "I could go to Denver at triple the salary, but I've got five kids and I figure there's no better place to raise kids than right here." (1.106)
The locals are devoted to their town despite it being forgettable to visitors. Capote shows us the trade-off for living in a small town with not much going on. It's safe, unpolluted, and family-friendly. Still, we're moving to Topeka.
[. . . ] strangers, ignorant of the local disaster—were startled by what they saw as they crossed the prairie and passed through Holcomb: windows ablaze, almost every window in almost every house, and, in the brightly lit rooms, fully clothed people, even entire families, who sat the whole night wide awake, watchful, listening. (2.29)
What a vivid image to depict the fear caused by the murders. This kind of description is what makes this book literary journalism. Notice how this imagery contrasts with the first sentence about Holcomb as just a scattering of buildings that you could pass through without noticing. Now, you'd notice it.
A lunch counter, a few tables, and an alcove harboring a hot grill and an icebox and a radio—that's all there is to Hartman's café. "But our customers like it," says the proprietress. "Got to. Nowhere else for them to go. 'Less they drive seven miles in one direction or fifteen the other. Anyway, we run a friendly place, and the coffee's good […]" (2.124)
Bad news about Holcomb? There's only one café. Good news? Probably everyone there knows your name and how you take your coffee. Does your local Starbucks do this?
"If [the killer] wasn't him, maybe it was you. Or somebody across the street. All the neighbors are rattlesnakes. Varmints looking for a chance to slam the door in your face. It's the same the whole world over. You know that." (2.249)
There's always a cantankerous old woman in every small town—she's like Corabeth on The Waltons, always thinking the worst of everyone. The way Capote records this conversation, it's clear that he's showing the reader the first inklings of the shattering of neighborly trust that would be a common reaction after the murders were first discovered.
[…] for the majority of Holcomb's population, having lived for seven weeks amid unwholesome rumors, general mistrust, and suspicion, appeared to feel disappointed at being told that the murderer was not someone among themselves. (3.420)
You can see here that as time went on, a lot of townspeople became suspicious of one another. Capote's demonstrating how, in a small town, suspicion can fester and seep into everybody. This is the damage done by the murders to the tight-knit fabric of Holcomb society. Why do you think Capote thought they were "disappointed" that the murderer wasn't one of them? Don't you think they'd feel relief? Was it guilt that they'd distrusted the neighbors they'd known so well?
The two girls had often gone riding together aboard Babe's wide back, jogged through the wheat fields on hot summer evenings down to the river and into the water, the mare wading against the current until, as Sue once described it, "the three of us were cool as fish." (4.47)
This is one of our last descriptions of Holcomb, and it's pretty idyllic. The irony is that it comes after the description of the auctioning off of the entire property and contents of the Clutter home and farm. Past and present are in sharp contrast here.