Holcomb is a small town on the high plains of western Kansas. Herbert Clutter owns a farm in the area, River Valley Farm. On November 14, 1959, he wakes up, eats a light breakfast, and begins the day's work. It will be his last.
On the other side of the state, Perry Smith eats a breakfast of aspirin and cigarettes. His friend Dick Hickock comes to pick him up.
Back at the Clutter household, a phone call wakes Nancy Clutter. A local girl wants to learn how to make cherry pies. Nancy rearranges her schedule to make time. Her friend Susan also calls. They talk about Nancy's date with Bobby the previous night and how Herb Clutter wants Nancy to slow down their relationship. Nancy also mentions that, inexplicably, she has been smelling cigarette smoke. Also, her father seems to be worried about something.
Dick is driving a black Cadillac. He and Perry take it to the shop where Dick works, where they tune the car, preparing for a long drive.
Nancy has finished teaching Jolene Katz how to bake cherry pies. She leaves, and Bonnie Clutter talks with the girl. She shows Jolene her collection of miniatures. After Jolene leaves she goes to bed, very depressed, as usual.
Perry and Dick are getting cleaned up for their drive. Dick is athletic but small; Perry has a muscular upper body, but his legs were badly damaged in a motorcycle wreck. They are both tattooed--Dick in many places, Perry only in a few places, but his tattoos are polished and intricate.
Four hundred miles away, Herb Clutter is driving Mrs. Ashida home from a 4-H meeting. The meeting was in Garden City, a small city close to Holcomb. Mrs. Ashida and her young family are new to Holcomb, but they may have to move. Herb hopes that they do not move.
The killers approach Holcomb, while the Clutters go about their wholesome, everyday business. This sequence is crafted so as to heighten the sense of suspense. Capote shifts quickly from scene to scene. It is like a film in which the scene shifts between simultaneous events in different places. The reader knows that the Clutters are going to die, but the Clutters are blissfully ignorant of this fact. Capote capitalizes on this irony. At the end of almost each chapter about the Clutters, Capote writes that this will be their last day, their last pie, etc.
It is obvious that Capote is the narrator, because the narrator is obviously more sophisticated than many of the characters in the book. His descriptions sound almost like anthropological investigations; he is aloof from his subjects. Although Capote had a rural childhood, his cosmopolitan experience comes through clearly as he describes "local color." In many ways, he is an urban sophisticate giving us a voyeuristic window into the "heartland" of America.