Billy Payne, who'd been a rising young lawyer in Richmond until fear of success collapsed his career and his marrriage and landed him back home in Howell County, VA, now lives with his angry boozing father and wonders idly when he'll win a first conviction in his last-chance job as Commonwealth Attorney. Then the murder of the most successful man in town brings some purpose to his work, as well as opportunity to see the widow, whom he has loved as long as he remembers. As short chapter lead-ins relate the continuing helplessness of a man held captive by a Bible-beating lunatic, Billy uncovers sordid secrets in the murder victim's past, all the while closing in on some of his own long-held fantasies as he begins to court the widow. Summer advances in Howell County; and against the heat and humidity, the Ministerial Alliance is formed, its leaders suggesting that Billy first tend to his own salvation and then join the campaign to lead the citizenry back to the ways of the Lord. Religious fanaticism and sexual obsession are the main sources of energy that fuel the characters as they move through the conventions of Southern gentility and the torpor of the climate. But in a stormy nighttime climax, we are reminded that no matter how destructive these forces may become, they begin in love. Heavily atmospheric, encompassing murder, kidnapping, assorted views of sex, and characters whose behaviors range from eccentric to bizarre, the book is a Southern gothic with considerable substance.