Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154
Horace Benbow, on his way to Jefferson one afternoon, stops to drink from a spring on the Old Frenchman place. When he rises, he sees an undersized man in a black suit watching him; the man’s hand is in a pocket that holds his gun. Satisfied at last that the lawyer is not a revenue officer, Popeye leads Benbow to the gutted ruins of a plantation house. That night the lawyer drinks moonshine and eats with Popeye, several moonshiners, and a blind and deaf old man, the father of Lee Goodwin, one of the moonshiners. They are fed by Ruby, Goodwin’s woman. Later, Benbow is given a lift into Jefferson on a truck loaded with whiskey on its way to Memphis.
The next afternoon, at his widowed sister’s home, Benbow watches her walking in the garden with young Gowan Stevens. Stevens leaves that evening after supper because he has a date with a woman at the state university the following night. The woman is Temple Drake.
After a dance, Stevens gets drunk. He awakens the next morning in front of the railroad station. A special train taking university students to a baseball game already left. Driving rapidly, Stevens catches up with the train in the next town. Temple jumps from the train and climbs into his car. Disgusted with his disheveled appearance, she orders him to drive her back to the university. Stevens insists that he promised to drive her to the game. On the way, he decides to stop at Goodwin’s place to buy more whiskey.
Stevens wrecks his car when he strikes a tree across the lane leading to the house. Popeye takes Temple and Stevens to the house. Temple goes into the kitchen, where Ruby sits smoking and watching the door. When Temple sees Stevens again, he is drunk. Then Popeye refuses to drive them back to town. Temple is frightened. Ruby tells Temple to go into the dining room to eat with the men.
One of the men tries to seize her, and Temple runs from the room and hides in a back room. Tommy, one of the moonshiners, follows her with a plate of food. The men begin to quarrel, and Stevens is knocked unconscious and carried into the house. Goodwin and a moonshiner named Van tussle until Popeye stops them. When Van finds Temple in one of the bedrooms, Goodwin knocks him down.
Then begins a series of comings and goings in the bedroom. Ruby comes to stand quietly in the darkness. Later, Popeye appears and stands silently over the girl. After he goes, Goodwin enters to claim a raincoat in which Temple wrapped herself. Popeye returns once more, followed noiselessly by Tommy, who squats in the dark beside Ruby. When the men finally leave the house to load the truck for its run to Memphis, Ruby takes Temple out to the barn and stays with her until daylight.
Stevens awakens early and starts out for the nearest house to hire a car. Feeling that he cannot face Temple again after his drunken night, he pays a farmer to drive to the house for Temple, while he thumbs a ride into town. Learning that Stevens already left, Temple goes into the kitchen with Ruby. When she leaves the house again, she sees the shadowy outline of a man who is squatting in the bushes and watching her. She returns to the house. Seeing Goodwin coming toward the house, she runs to the barn and hides in the corncrib. Watching, Popeye sees Goodwin looking from the house toward the barn. In the barn, Popeye finds Tommy at the door of the corncrib. While Tommy stands watching Goodwin, Popeye shoots him. Popeye rapes Temple with a corncob and kidnaps her. A short time later, Goodwin tells Ruby that Tommy is shot. He sends her to the nearest house to phone for the sheriff.
Benbow stays with his sister for two days. When Goodwin is brought in, charged with Tommy’s murder, Benbow agrees to defend the prisoner. Goodwin, afraid of Popeye, claims only that he did not shoot Tommy. It is Ruby who tells Benbow that Popeye took Temple away in his car.
Benbow attempts to trace the woman’s whereabouts. State Senator Snopes tells him that Judge Drake’s daughter is supposed to be visiting an aunt in Michigan after an attempted runaway marriage.
A week before the opening of the court session, Benbow meets Senator Snopes again. For a price the politician is willing to reveal that Temple is in Reba Rivers’s bawdy house in Memphis. Benbow goes at once to see the girl. Temple, although reluctant to talk, confirms many details of Ruby’s story. The lawyer realizes that without Temple’s testimony he cannot prove that Goodwin is innocent of Popeye’s crime.
One morning, Temple bribes Reba’s black servant to let her out of the house to make a phone call. That evening she manages to sneak out again, just as a car with Popeye in it pulls up at the curb. When she refuses to go back to her room, he takes her to the Grotto, where Temple arranged to meet a young man called Red, whom Popeye took to her room. At the Grotto, she dances with Red while Popeye plays at the crap table. She begs Red to take her away with him. Later in the evening, two of Popeye’s henchmen force Temple into a car waiting outside. As they drive away, Temple sees Popeye sitting in a parked car.
Red’s funeral is held in the Grotto. For the occasion, the tables are draped in black, and a downtown orchestra is hired to play hymns. Drinks are on the house. The night before the trial, Benbow learns from Reba that Popeye and Temple left her house. Ruby takes the witness stand the next day, and she tells the story of Tommy’s murder. She and Benbow spend that night in the jail cell with Goodwin, who is afraid that Popeye might shoot him from one of the buildings across the street.
Temple, located through the efforts of Senator Snopes, is called to testify the next morning. She indicates that Goodwin is the man who attacked her on the day of Tommy’s murder. Goodwin is convicted. That night a mob drags the prisoner from the jail and burns him. Popeye, on his way to Pensacola, is arrested for the murder of a police officer in Birmingham. The murder occurred the same night that Red was shot outside the Grotto. Popeye makes no defense, and his only claim is that he knows nothing about the Birmingham shooting. Convicted, he is executed for a crime he did not commit. Judge Drake takes his daughter to Europe. In Paris’s Luxembourg Gardens with her father, listening in boredom to the band, Temple sits in quiet, sullen discontent.