Caught between a Prohibition gangster and Southern customs, Horace Benbow tries to bring a vicious criminal to justice and save the life of a local moonshiner. At Lee Goodwin’s moonshine farm, Horace stumbles unwittingly into the insidious world of Popeye, an impotent gangster, who holds Temple Drake, a flirtatious but innocent coed, semicaptive. Benbow, unable to deal with his own family, is ill prepared for the barbarous rape of Temple which follows the murder of the feebleminded Tommy.

When Lee Goodwin is falsely accused of the murder, Benbow undertakes his defense. To save Goodwin, Benbow must first locate Temple, who has been put by Popeye into a Memphis brothel, and he must then get her to tell the truth in court. In the process of the story’s complex conflicts, Benbow is stripped of all faith in humanity, shaken to his moral foundations. By the novel’s ironic end, the gentle lawyer has no defenses left against the world’s evil. All he can say is, “Lock the door.”

The novel becomes an ironic satire on the cliched heroine and traditional values. Temple Drake is no temple of innocence, and there is no sanctuary from evil--not the blatant evil without nor the evil hidden within the society. Popeye’s evil at least is pure compared with the hypocritical attitudes found in the “good” Southern people. Horace, the ineffectual lawyer, repeats a phrase that runs ironically through the novel: “There ought to be a law.” The...

(The entire section is 484 words.)