This story, centered on the police chiefs from 1908 through 1963, is about a small town in Georgia, the challenges faced by the various police chiefs due to the evolution of civil rights, and the potential serial killer that each subsequent chief discovers evidence of. Billy Lee's father, Henry, became the first police chief of Delano and Billy grew to be a lawyer who tries to ease Delano into modern times including dealing with the racial intolerance pervasive in his town. When it looks like Henry Lee's farm will succumb to the boll weevil, Henry Lee applies, and gets, the job of police chief over Foxy, a strange ex-military man who lives just outside the town's limits. They then move into the town, with Holmes, the local politician and banker, helping them out. Henry Lee also finds another job at the Spence's for the Cole's who worked his farm. It was the early 1920s. On his first day 2 boys rob the local bank in a drunken prank and Henry just happens to be there when they get into an accident. He arrests them with the help of Skeeter, the county sheriff, and any doubts people had about his ability are gone.
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Throughout Henry's tenure, we hear of the local crimes and the even-handed way Henry handles them. His biggest problem was Butts beating his wife and a slicing in the black area of town. He's fair with everyone. After the first month is the first murder, a paper delivery boy finds a dead, naked man in the woods. Henry calls on Skeeter to help him, they get him autopsied and find he was restrained before he died. Henry investigates, thinking it was the Klan, though the boy was white, but Skeeter assures him it was probably hobos. In the course of the investigation he questions Foxy, whose home is not far from where the boy was found. Foxy doesn't like being questioned but Henry assures him it's just because he lives close by and he thought he may have heard something. In the mid-20s a second boy shows up dead but it was on the other side of the mountain in another county. He investigates anyway, finds a spent .45 cartridge, questions Foxy again because it, too, is near his house, then sends the cartridge to the sheriff in the other county. But he did find out this boy had been restrained as well. He begins to keep missing persons notices, just in case.
Jesse Cole, who used to work for him, gets malaria and can't work for Spence anymore. He finds him part time work and place to live. His son Willy gets caught stealing food and is charged with petty theft and must do community service. One day he doesn't show up for the service and Will and the city manager go to his house. Jesse, in a malarial delirium, shots Will, thinking he's Spence, and tells Willie to run. He does and is never seen again. Jesse is convicted and dies in the electric chair.
Billy grows up, goes to college, and then the war breaks out and he goes there too, and marries an Irish girl and brings her home. Butt's son also went to the war, comes back, and joins the police force. He will become the next chief after the one who succeeded Henry, dies. Butt Spence is mean and corrupt and is also in the Klan. Billy hears about mistreatment at the jail and looks into it. He has aspirations of going into Georgia politics, following in banker Holmes' footsteps. Many of the blacks in Delano served in the military and one, Marshall, sets up an auto repair business, quickly taking business from the existing white-owned shop. Sonny Butts takes his car there and when the owner won't drop everything to service it, he leaves mad and at the next Klan meeting they decide to take care of him. Marshall, the owner, tells Billy about what happened and he tells him to be careful. The next morning there are 2 cases of moonshine in his shop when he opens it. He calls Billy and they take the moonshine to the police station after calling the sheriff. When they all drive back to the garage, they find Skeeter and Sonny searching the place and they say they had a tip about illegal whiskey. The who of it is dropped, but Marshall won't have more trouble unless he invites it himself.
Billy continues to help out the people in the community, both black and white, and eventually Holmes chooses him to run for Governor. Billy starts campaigning, It is now the early 1960s and JFK is running for office. Civil rights is a huge issue, especially in the South, where much hasn't changed for blacks since the abolition of slavery. In the police department, Sonny finds Henry's file on the missing persons and it piques his interest, but he puts it aside telling his clerk to start giving him all of the missing photos that come in. Then Sonny gets caught on several occasions, abusing his power. Billy has Holmes bring him up before the City Council to be fired, while they await the results of a Grand Jury hearing on other charges brought against Sonny. Then Sonny hears about another disappearance, and he is convinced Foxy had something to do with the missing kids. So he gets on the police motorcycle to investigate, convinced that if he solves the murders, he won't get fired. He never returns.
The town is looking for a new chief and Skeeter calls Billy with a recommendation. It turns out the man is black and, if hired, would be the first black police chief in the South. Billy knows Skeeter did it purposely but the man has an impeccable record and excellent credentials. Billy recommends him and Holmes agrees, after they weigh the political consequences. His name is Tucker Watts and he has a past that no one, not even his wife, knows about. Right after he gets approved, he is stopped for speeding, though he wasn't and then accused of resisting arrest. They bring him to the station and start giving him problems, when he throws his badge on the counter and starts giving orders. The men begin to respect almost immediately. Things are going smoothly. He has problems with some people and none with others, but then he finds the missing persons files after another boy is reported missing, and inadvertently starts stepping on toes investigating Foxy. He finally gets John Howell, a NYT reporter who he befriended after he wrote several stories about Delano, interested and they go to the FBI, thinking it can be handled under a new law that was passed.
They agree to look into it and Tucker, the FBI and Howell go to Foxy's place, though they make Howell stay in the car. They have a warrant and search his house, but find nothing but a police uniform that he explains away. They check the backyard and are about to give up when they find some rusted metal tubing. The FBI guys think it's just old pipes sticking pout of the ground, but Tucker, realizing that the rest of Foxy's place is pathologically neat and symmetrical, says he knows what it is -it's motorcycle handlebars. But in their excitement, they forgot about Foxy who now had a shotgun pointed at the three of them. In the meantime, Howell grew tired of waiting and rolled the car down the hill, got out and saw Foxy getting ready to shoot the FBI agents and Tucker, so he yells to distract him, and three three lawmen open fire, shooting Foxy. So they start digging and find Sonny, then Tucker gets the prisoners from the jail to come over there with pickaxes and shovels. Billy shows up because he heard about the Federal warrant after he had just won the election for Governor. After digging all night they uncover 43 bodies, the newest one being the last missing persons notice Tucker had seen. When Tucker explains it all to Billy, he shows him the material from over the years that had been collected and Billy recognizes his father's handwriting.
Finally the mystery of the missing boys is solved, Sonny is found, Billy gets elected, Watts' past is revealed, but not to the public, and the changes of the 60s officially arrive in Delano.
Best part of story, including ending:
It was interesting because it gave excellent background on the times without being tedious about it. Without the background, the story wouldn't have been as good.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was when they go to search Foxy's place and the NYT reporter is told to stay in the car unless they find something, then they'll radio him. But after sitting for what seemed like hours, he realizes that he couldn't get radio reception because a mountain is in the way. So he slowly drives the car down the road and ends up saving the day.
Opinion about the main character:
The main character is ambitious but not to the point that he lets his ambition override the basic morals and ethics taught to him by his father.