To get the reader in the mood for murder, the book starts with a detailed description of the Kansas flatlands—remote and isolated, lots of boarded-up storefronts and sad cafes.
You can almost hear that lonesome train whistle...
We meet Herb Clutter, wealthy Holcomb, Kansas wheat farmer, father of four, and husband to a wife, Bonnie.
Seems Bonnie's suffered from depression since the birth of her first child and has spent her share of time in psychiatric hospitals. But she just got some news that her depression might be caused by a spine problem, and that with some surgery, she'll be back to normal.
Herb's a decent, respected, prominent guy in town who's done well for himself. His kids are accomplished and popular, and he lives in a huge house he designed himself.
Despite being well-off, they're unpretentious people.
Herb doesn't drink alcohol or coffee, doesn't smoke, and most of his friends belong to his Methodist church and are similarly abstinent folk.
That morning, he goes about his normal routine—milk and an apple for breakfast, and a walk outside to check out the farm and orchards.
He runs into his hired man, who asks for the day off to take care of his sick baby. Of course, Herb's sympathetic and offers to help.
A young man named Perry Smith is having breakfast in a café the same morning in Olathe, Kansas, about 400 miles from Holcomb.
He doesn't drink coffee, either.
There ends any other similarity with Herb Clutter.
Perry's waiting for Dick Hickock, his friend and former cellmate from the Kansas State Penitentiary, with whom Perry is supposed to pull off a "score" that night.
Perry's already planning the escape, to some city in Mexico.
We learn that Perry has a physical disfigurement—a powerful, muscular upper-body, but misshapen, deformed legs.
(You've probably noticed that, at this point in the narrative, the author goes back and forth between what's happening in the Clutter home, and what Dick and Perry are up to. This is one of the "novelistic" techniques the author uses to make the narrative more dramatic and interesting. It's not as confusing in the book as it is in our summary, but we'll throw in the occasional "meanwhile" to make it easier to keep on track here.)
Nancy Clutter talks on the phone to her best friend, Susan Kidwell, about her romance with Bobby Rupp. Her father has problems with this relationship because Bobby is Catholic and the Clutters are Methodist.
Marriage is out of the question, but Susan advises her to keep dating Bobby until she leaves for college.
Susan, whose father abandoned her and her mother, was kind of adopted by the Clutter family.
The call ends when Nancy has to get off the phone to help little Jolene Katz bake a pie.
Little kids adore Nancy and she's always helping them out with one thing or another.
Meanwhile, Dick Hickock arrives late to meet Perry. In his car, he's got a shotgun and a hunting knife. He's wearing a hunting vest.
The hunting vest is to convince Mr. Clutter that they were two hunters who just lost their way and needed to use the phone.
Dick sneaked the shotgun from his father's house.
He'd told his father that he and Perry were going on an overnight trip to visit Perry's sister in Fort Scott.
Think Perry has a sister in Fort Scott? Neither do we.
The two work together on Dick's black 1949 Chevrolet sedan for hours, making sure the car's in shape for its big trip to Holcomb and back.
We learn that Dick's living with his parents because that's a condition of his parole. He was married and divorced twice and has three sons, but doesn't live with any of them.
Nancy and Jolene Katz finish baking the cherry pie. It's heavenly.
Can it get any more Kansas-y in here?
Nancy leaves to help with Roxie Lee Smith's trumpet solo, and poor Jolene, who's surely too young for this kind of experience, is left alone with the very depressed Mrs. Clutter.
Mrs. Clutter talks in an odd way about how her children don't need her.
She hints that Jolene will end up having the same problems herself one day, and she shows Jolene her collection of miniatures.
She gives Jolene a miniature paper fan, along with, no doubt, a huge sense of foreshadowing.
Jolene wishes her mother would hurry up and get there already.
We learn that Mrs. Clutter had an episode of postpartum depression after each child, and now doesn't function all that well.
She returns to the bedroom that she doesn't share with Mr. Clutter, and thinks about how hard it is to have to make decisions for the household when Mr. Clutter is away on his frequent business trips.
She also thinks about the time she watched a party at her home from her bedroom window and was seen by Susan Kidwell's mother. She laments the fact that she'll be remembered by her children "as a kind of a ghost" (1.30).
Dick and Perry clean up after spending the morning working on the car.
Dick's face, due to a car accident in 1950, looks "as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center" (1.94).
Dick, despite not being all that successful in life, had his IQ tested at 130 while in prison.
That's really, really high.
Perry has his own physical deformities: his legs were crushed in a motorcycle accident and never really healed.
They're twisted and deformed and cause him constant pain.
He's addicted to aspirin.
They get in the car and start driving toward Holcomb.
We learn more about Garden City, the county seat near the Clutter home in Holcomb, and about Mr. Clutter's popularity—he's on a lot of boards and committees, but isn't the snobby type.
We see evidence of his generosity in his interaction with Mrs. Hideo Ashida, the wife of a Japanese farmer, and her four children.
Mrs. Ashida, whose family Herb Clutter is giving a ride home from 4H, says to Herb in a fit of ironic foreshadowing that "[she] can't imagine you [Herb Clutter] afraid. No matter what happened, you'd talk yourself out of it" (1.106).
In Emporia, Kansas, Dick and Perry buy a pair of rubber gloves and enough rope to tie up 12 people, in case the Clutters have company for Thanksgiving.
Perry wants to buy some black stockings to cover their faces, but Dick thinks that's a waste of money.
Since they're not leaving any witnesses.
Meanwhile, Kenyon Clutter has been in the family basement working on a mahogany hope chest, lined with cedar, for his sister Beverly's wedding present.
Kenyon is more like his mother than Herb, and is thought of generally as being odd but lovable.
He lately had a falling-out with his best friend, who got a girlfriend and isn't as available to hang out with Kenyon.
Kenyon runs into the housekeeper's husband, who asks him whose car that is in the driveway.
Kenyon thinks it must belong to Mr. Johnson, the guy who is selling his father some life insurance. (Cue dramatic music.)
At that moment, Nancy Clutter comes riding in on her horse, Babe. It's chilly, and Mr. Helm warns her she might catch cold.
Nancy replies that she's never been sick a day in her life. (More music.)
See what we mean by this book's being a nonfiction novel?
Perry and Dick park the black Chevrolet outside of a Catholic hospital, where Perry again tries to get Dick to buy black stockings from the nuns who work there, so that they won't have to kill anyone during the robbery.
Yeah, this is gonna work.
While Dick's talking to the nuns, we learn Perry's real reason for agreeing to Dick's idea to rob the Clutters: he needed a ride back to Kansas.
He wants a reunion with his prison friend Willy Jay, a prison chaplain's clerk who, Perry feels, recognizes Perry's true artistic and spiritual worth.
Willy Jay thought that Perry's explosive temper was what got in the way of his success in life.
Perry had been living in Idaho when he got Dick's letter about the score. He realized that Willie-Jay was due to be paroled around that same time, so he agreed to go to Kansas with Dick.
But when Perry reached Kansas City, Willie-Jay had already been released from prison and was gone.
So Perry decides to continue on with Dick's score.
Dick comes out of the hospital after a few minutes, telling Perry he asked the nuns, but no go.
Perry doesn't believe Dick asked, and Perry's right.
Wow, talk about foreshadowing, dramatic irony, you-name-it: Herb Clutter, on the last day of his life, buys a life insurance policy for forty thousand dollars, with double indemnity.
That's a life insurance clause that allows for double payment in the case of accidental death, like murder, which is as accidental a death as you can have.
You couldn't make this up.
On the way to the store, Perry tells Dick about the easy life and fortunes to be made in Japan and Mexico.
Dick pretends to be interested.
Meanwhile, we learn that Bobby Rupp helped the Clutters spend their last night on earth watching TV.
He's telling this to the person about to administer a lie-detector test to him.
He says he left around 11pm and shudders to think that there may have been someone waiting there, in the dark.
Dick and Perry stop for dinner in Great Bend and have a huge meal.
At a nearby drugstore after dinner, they buy two thick rolls of adhesive tape.
Rope, tape: obviously, somebody's prepared.
At a gas station outside Garden City, Dick tells the proprietor that they're passing through on their way to Arizona.
Just passin' through.
Perry spends too long in the gas station bathroom rubbing his aching legs.
Dick wonders if Perry has "blood bubbles" (1.192)—his word for fear—about the plan.
But he's reassured when he remembers that Perry told him he once beat a black man to death with a bicycle chain. Right.
Finally, Perry comes out of the bathroom and says, "OK, let's go" (1.209).
Back in Holcomb, Nancy Clutter's the last of the family to go to bed.
This is her only alone time—and her last.
She writes in her diary, says her prayers, and lays out her church clothes—the ones she'll actually be buried in instead.
The black Chevrolet creeps into the Clutter driveway late that night.
Cut to around 9am the next morning, when Nancy Ewalt, a classmate of Nancy Clutter, is being dropped off at the Clutter house by her father, Clarence, to go to church with the Clutters.
No one answers the Clutters' door. They can't be asleep—the Clutters never sleep in on Sundays.
And all the cars are in the driveway.
Nice girl that she is, she doesn't want to barge in.
So she and her father drive to the Teacherage—housing for teachers who can't afford to live anywhere else—where Sue Kidwell and her mother live.
The Kidwells haven't seen the family either, so everyone heads back to the Clutter house to see what's happened.
When they walk into the kitchen, they see that nobody has made breakfast, and that Nancy's purse is half-open on the floor.
Mrs. Kidwell recalls the awful silence as they call out Nancy's name and walk into her bedroom only to discover Nancy's gunshot-blasted, lifeless body on her bed.
Mr. Ewalt hears the screams and sees the girls running out of the house, crying that Nancy is dead.
He doesn't know what to think, and runs into the house to call an ambulance.
The phone lines have been cut.
Larry Hendricks, Kenyon's teacher and an aspiring writer, lives in the Teacherage with his family. He's there when the hysterical girls and Mrs. Kidwell get back to the Teacherage.
The sheriff arrives at 9:30 and he heads back with him and Mr. Ewalt to the Clutter farm.
Once he sees the phone lines have been cut, he knows it can't be good. Luckily for our author, he realizes he should take notes in case he's called to testify.
He describes the search of the house in detail, and the gruesome discovery of the bound, gagged, and shot bodies of each of the Clutters.
He's struck most by two details—how Kenyon's head was propped on pillows and how Mr. Clutter's body was resting on a mattress box.
Holcomb's mail messenger, Mrs. Sadie Truitt, and her daughter, Mrs. Myrtle Clare, the town's postmistress, get the news about two ambulances at the Clutter home. They know it can't be just another one of Bonnie's "spells."
Myrt tells her mother about the killings; she's horrified and puts her hands over her ears. Myrt is more of a realist, saying that "when your time comes, it comes. And tears won't save you" (1.239).
News of the murders spreads quickly through the town.
In Hartman's Café, the owner, Mrs. Bess Hartman, says many people thought at first the murderer was Bonnie Clutter, because of her spells.
Bob Johnson, the insurance salesman, tries to think of a way out of paying the double indemnity, but ultimately decides it's the right thing to do. He hadn't even deposited Herb's check.
The two surviving Clutter children, Eveanna Jarchow and Beverly Clutter, are on their way to Garden City as soon as they hear about the tragedy. The rest of the extended family is, too.
Susan Kidwell fights with her mother to go and tell Bobby Rupp about Nancy's murder, but Bobby already knows.
On his way home, Mr. Ewalt stopped to talk to Bobby's father Johnny. Afterwards, he told Bobby what had happened.
Meanwhile, about 400 miles away in Olathe, Perry lies sleeping in a hotel room soaking his bloody boots, while Dick eats supper at his parents' house.
The killers have left quite a gruesome mess at the Clutter home, and it took four of Herb Clutter's closest friends to clean it up.
While cleaning up, they learn that Clutters' caretaker, Alfred Stoecklein, who lived less than 100 yards from the Clutter house, had heard nothing the night of the murders thanks to a sick, noisy baby and a howling wind.
The men put the bloody bedclothes and furniture into a pile and burn them.
Stoecklein announces plans to move away. He can't imagine staying there any longer.