This book is based on the true story of a Florida planter and outlaw, E.J. Watson, who was murdered by his neighbours; it was originally a trilogy and Matthiessen reworked and condensed it to produce this version. It was entirely an accident that I ended up reading this whilst in Florida, given that it's set in the Florida back-country at the turn of the century. It really seemed to add to the atmosphere, being in and around the same places mentioned in the book, smelling the mangrove swamps and seeing the Spanish moss hanging from the branches. You can even visit Ted Smallwood's store - kinda wish I had now.
It's a wonderful read, given that the entire plot hinges around an event that takes place in the first ten pages of the novel. It's still broken down in structure into three books, one that covers the murder itself and the reactions and viewpoints of those taking part in it, the other following Watson's son Lucius as he tries to discover the truth about that night, and the final book from Watson's perspective covering his entire life up to the murder.
Watson is a compelling character - given that he's really not a nice man at all, it's strangely hard to hate him. And when you come to the end of the book and the story's over (although it's over from the start for Watson) you're sad to leave him, in a way. But that's part of the strength of this book - there are no villains as much as there are no heroes, and Matthiessen manages to make you feel sympathy and understanding for almost every character, regardless of where they stand and what they've done. It's quite an achievement, but then this is quite a book.