Although murder is central to the plot, it is the destruction of a human soul and its causes that resonates throughout the novel. As D.H. Lawrence said: "To suffer in one's whole self is so great a violation, that it is not to be endured." Anger, obsession and familial disintegration create an atmosphere in which evil thrives as a driving force.
Sam Larkin is a complex paradox of a man. A former wildlife law-enforcement officer, unjustly imprisoned ex-con, teacher and artist, Larkin has come to the lowcountry to find a peace that is sorely lacking in his life; however, as a friend from his past tells him, through his loyalty to friends and to those he loves, trouble seems to seek him out.
Covington County detective, Campbell Gardner is assigned the case. Knowing Larkin's association with the victim, Gardner enlists his help in the investigation. Like Larkin, Gardner has his own devils to deal with. He is not liked by his fellow officers because of his expertise, big city background and affluent lifestyle, as well as the mystery surrounding his arrival in Covington from the police department in Atlanta, Georgia.
The killer's paranoia results in a second murder, the shooting of Larkin's best friend and a vicious attack on Denny Layne Kimbrell, an art gallery owner, friend of Robin Streeter's and an admirer of Larkin's work and the man himself. Though their relationship in the beginning is professional, violence and Robin Streeter's death give birth to a more personal bond.
Larkin not only becomes immersed in his work with Gardner, but is also considered a suspect by sheriff's deputy Willy Brister, an alcoholic and disgruntled man, who is obsessed with getting justice at any cost for the dead woman. He does not believe anyone who has served time in prison can ever be rehabilitated, which makes Larkin a prime target.