WILLIAM L. HEATH – Temptation in a Southern Town. Hillman #114, paperback, 1959. Reprinted as Blood on the River by The Mystery Book Guild, hardcover, 1959.

   W. L. Heath wrote several books about life and crime set in small-town rural south, the best known of which (because it was filmed) is Violent Saturday, but all of his work is worth reading for the sharply observed characters, well-knit plots and subtle atmosphere.

   Temptation in a Southern Town follows two characters to their inevitable meeting: aging Sheriff Deparis, who learns late in the book that he has stomach cancer (a sentence of painful death in 1959) and Billy South, a strong, hard-working black man who got in with a crowd of rum-runners a ways back and messed up his life.

   Heath does a compelling job of charting a collision course without making it look contrived. He picks out little bits of detail, highlights the bit players (a short interview with a mill foreman makes the character real for us, even though he’s never seen in the book again) and throws in the little details that make a story come alive without slowing the pace.

   There’s an incredibly tense few chapters that occur when a run goes wrong, and another nice bit when Billy’s associates turn on him, but the quiet scenes in little shops, watching children at play or just hanging around an empty jail are no less entertaining.

   And best of all, when the story gets to where we knew it was going all along, Heath goes for drama instead of melodrama. When the ending comes, it never seems stage-managed, but arises easily from the characters themselves.

   I’ll add that Heath treats the racial prejudice of his time much as Jane Austin treated the plight of women in hers: He acknowledges its presence and patent evil, bases some of the plot on it, but makes the book more about individuals than issues.

   If you’ve never read anything by William L. Heath, you should give yourself a treat.

Note:   For a short biography of the author and a list of the books he wrote, go here: