In 1970, the first person narrator, a 23-year-old college dropout by the name of Willie Traynor, comes to Clanton, Mississippi for an internship at the local newspaper, The Ford County Times . However the editor, Wilson Caudle, drives the newspaper into bankruptcy through years of mismanagement. Willie decides to buy the paper spontaneously for $50,000, using money borrowed from his wealthy grandmother, and becomes the editor and owner of The Times . Months later, a member of the notorious Padgitt family brutally rapes and kills a young widow, Rhoda Kassellaw. The murderer, Danny Padgitt, is put on trial. Before being found guilty, Padgitt threatens to kill each of the jury members, should they convict him. Although they find him guilty, the jury cannot decide whether to send him to life in prison or to Death Row, so Padgitt is sentenced to life in prison at the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
After nine years in prison, Danny Padgitt is paroled and returns to Clanton. Immediately, two jury members are killed and one is nearly killed by a bomb. Jury member and close friend of Willie, Callie Ruffin, reveals that the recent victims were the jurors who were against sentencing Danny to Death Row. Callie Ruffin is black, and was the first black on a jury trying a white criminal in Ford County. With her husband, she has a family of highly accomplished adult children, who live outside of Mississippi. Convinced that Danny is exacting his revenge, as promised, the judge of Clanton issues an arrest for Danny Padgitt. At Padgitt's bail hearing, the former lover of Rhoda Kassellaw, Hank Hooten, having hidden in the crawl space above the courtroom, guns down and kills the suspect. He then barricades himself in the court house tower and, after a short standoff that mainly destroys a few windows, commits suicide. Willie later discovers that Hooten was a schizophrenic and would often hear the voices of the victim's children in his head, exhorting him to murder Danny and the three jurors who voted against the death penalty. After nine years of ownership, Willie sells The Ford County Times for $1.5 million. Soon after, Callie Ruffin dies of a heart attack, and the book ends with Willie writing her obituary.