Nick Corey is the sheriff of a small-town where folks don’t care too much for the strict enforcement of the law. That suits Nick just fine, as he doesn’t care too much for hard work. He’d be content to just live out the rest of his days sleeping at his desk, collecting graft, and shaking hands around Election Day, but people just won’t let him alone. There’s the local pimps who’ve taken to abusing him on the street and that just won’t do. There’s the big-city sheriff who looks down on him and his town. His nagging wife and her dim-witted brother give him a world of trouble. And the biggest trouble is that a well-liked, honest, God-fearing man has decided he wants Nick’s job.
All of these antagonists under-estimate Nick Corey. They take his down-home expressions and self-deprecation at face value and fail to see the cunning, calculating mind at work. The reader gets an early hint when Nick easily takes care of his problem with the pimps and manages to nimbly lay the blame at someone else’s feet.
The rest of the book follows Nick’s methodical, amoral problem-solving as he sets out against romantic rivals, meddling townfolk, and his opponent in the upcoming election. It’s an impressively dark piece of work by Thompson, an acclaimed noir master, but the problem is that despite all these antagonists, there isn’t a worthy opponent for Nick. There’s never really any suspense as Nick goes about his plot, no worry that he’ll be caught or outsmarted. He’s running unopposed, and no matter how disturbing his actions, they get a little boring.
This short novel winds up feeling more like a character sketch or an exercise, like Mozart playing scales. An impressive display of skill but ultimately uninspiring.