Spanning four decades and involving three successive police chiefs of Delano, Georgia, the manhunt for the serial killer of young boys exposes the hatreds, fears, dark secrets, and festering wounds of a seemingly ordinary small town. During the bitter winter of 1920, the naked body of an unidentified teenaged boy is discovered in a wooded area of a small Georgia town. There is no direct evidence of murder, but the body bears marks of what seems to be a ritual beating. The investigation falls into the inexperienced hands of the newly appointed chief of police, who, only weeks before, had been farming cotton.
His intelligent, obsessive hunt for the boy's tormentor begins a story that ultimately weaves through decades of deceit, hatred, perversion and political drama that inexorably envelops the lives of two other chiefs - one himself a murderer, the other hiding a secret that, if revealed, might destroy not only himself, but the promising career of a rising political figure.