In the early 1920's the small town of Delano, Georgia finally grows large enough to finally require a lawman of their own- the closest town with a sheriff is almost 20 miles away, and while they haven't had any big trouble yet, they decide to act *before* it comes to town and it is too late. The President of the local bank, Hugh Holmes, receives two applications for the job of Chief of Police on the same day. The first is from a local farmer named Will Henry Lee, who is worried about the Boll Weevil that will surely eat up his crop of cotton, and wishes to retire from farming into something more steady. The second is from a retired military man named Francis Funderburke, better known as "Foxy" to the locals. He thinks he's the one to keep the law in town, but Holmes knows that if he makes Foxy the Chief of Police, he'll use the position to try and rule over people.
Will Henry Lee, by contrast, is a man who always tries to talk things out first, and listens to both sides before making a decision, and Holmes considers him an all around better man for the job. Though he presents both names to the town council for a decision, both he and the town back Will Henry Lee, and he is given the job, along with a house in town and enough money added to his salary to buy life insurance, "just in case" for his family, as Will Henry and his wife have two young children.
Just after he's sworn in, Will Henry deals with two young men who stole a car and guns and proceeded to rob the town's bank. But the booze they drank on the way to the crime makes them crash their car, and he has his first arrest on the same day he gets the job. But as he tries to keep the people of the town safe and deal with one man who beats his wife, he also has to deal with a killer in town. The first young man dies from running off a cliff in the middle of the night, and is found by the same boy who delivers Will Henry's newspaper. The second is discovered impaled on a barbed wire fence, somehow running into it, also at night.
These murders bother Will Henry, and he becomes obsessed with finding and catching the criminal who perpetrated them. He investigates as best he can, but when his life is cut short by being shotgunned by an old friend in the throes of malaria, the case, and his conclusions as to who is responsible for the murders, falls by the wayside.
Sonny Butts is a veteran of the second World War, and he returns to Delano with no clear idea of what he is going to do with his life. But the town council decides to give the returning white veterans jobs in local government, and Sonny gets his dream job as a police officer on the force. He's not the best sort of man, being virulently racist and apt to use his post to abuse and molest women and try and set up blacks so that he can abuse them at the local jail. But when he asks the chief if he can use the old rolltop desk that once belonged to Will Henry Lee, the chief gives his okay- so long as he cleans it out.
In the desk are the case files of the murders, and when Sonny reads them he gets fascinated by the case, and when the old Chief of Police dies of a heart attack on the steps of the church on Sunday, Sonny is appointed the Chief by the town council, over the objections of Billy Lee, William Henry's son and another returning veteran, who is not a racist man, but who also wants to go into politics. He's been aware of Sonny's predilection for racist acts, and trying to get Marshall Parker, a local black mechanic, arrested so that Sonny can get a little revenge on Parker for not dropping everything to fix his car when he went to Parker for service.
But when Sonny arrests Parker, and takes him back to the station house after being stopped trying to rape a young lesbian woman by her female lover, he goes too far and kills Parker by accident, but not before taking him to the town doctor and having the Doctor hear what really went on. Billy Lee tries to get Sonny axed from his position, and Sonny is concerned about losing his job and going to jail for the murder. But when he nearly beats a man to death at the local carnival in front of nearly the entire town, it is only then that the town is convinced to really do something about him. But before they can, Sonny goes off to confront the man he thinks is the murderer who killed not only the boys in Will Henry Lee's files, but who has continued killing young boys over the years. And as far as the town is concerned, he simply disappears. In reality, the killer kills him and buries not only his latest Victim, but Sonny Butts and the town's Police motorcycle.
In the late 60's it is time for a new Police Chief, and none of the cops in town are experienced enough to bump up into the position. Sonny Lee, now the Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, is looking for a new Police Chief of Delano, still having many ties to the town. He asks for recommendations of Chief Breen of Atlanta, and the Chief recommends an officer retiring from the army, Major Tucker Watts of the Military Police, who seems like he has the right stuff to be the right man for the job. Billy is overjoyed to hear this, and is impressed with his accomplishments. The only problem being that Tucker Watts is black. Billy doesn't have a problem with this, but he knows a lot of people in town will, as the town is still very racist.
Indeed, when Tucker moves to town to take the job, he's arrested on suspicion of stealing his car by the local police, and sets the standard quickly of someone who demands military discipline out of his officers. But he makes few friends when he roots out corruption in the Police force and protects his fellow blacks from being harassed by local business owners. But Tucker has a dirty secret in his own past that could sink him forever if it gets out, and when he discovers the files detailing the first murders from 1920, he's determined to see justice done.
But no one seems to believe that the real murderer could be responsible for the deed, and Tucker's investigation runs into many dead-ends and roadblocks when a local citizen accuses him of Police Brutality of an old white man who happens to be racist. But when Tucker goes to the FBI with his evidence, will it finally be enough to bring down the murderer, or will his last desperate gambit to bring justice to the criminal all come down in flames? Can Tucker trip up the murderer, or will he be the one tripped up?
I remember seeing a TV miniseries based on this book back in the early 80's and what I really remember about it is the ending (and if you remember the ending, I hope you'll forgive the joke I worked into the description of the story) and the fact that Billy Dee Williams played the part of Tucker Watts, and the murderer was played by Charlton Heston in all three eras/nights of the story. At the time, I wasn't aware that the story was taken from a book, and I probably would have remained ignorant until today, when someone donated that book to the library. I saw it and read the blurb and was like... "I remember this...!"
The book definitely fleshes out the story. I remembered most of the part about Tucker Watts, less about the abusive and molesting tendencies of Sonny Butts, and pretty much nothing about Will Henry Lee. But the story is a delight. The reader knows the identity of the murderer by the end of William Henry Lee's section of the book and waits for him to finally get caught through the rest of the story. Each character's obsession with stopping the killer impels the story and creates tension.
But it's also a story of politics, both the rise of Billy Lee to the Governorship of Georgia and the possible Vice-Presidency of the United States to replace Lyndon Johnson, and Hugh Holmes' role in founding, and then running the town and helping Billy Lee in his candidacy for politics. The two stories are interwoven skillfully, but I found myself more interested in the murder cases than in all the political stuff, even though that was still interesting to read.
In short, this was a taut, tightly woven thriller that takes place over about 50 years, of Police Chiefs struggling to bring down a serial killer and fighting racism in a small southern town. Though readers find the identity of the killer early in the book, the story is about how the killer is eventually brought down after years of murder, and the final body count is at least 45 young boys and men. I probably wouldn't read any other books by Stuart Woods, but I did enjoy this one very much. Highly recommended.