In a small town on the northern coast of Colombia, on the morning after the biggest wedding the town has ever seen, Santiago Nasar, a local man and mostly upstanding citizen, is brutally murdered outside his own front door. The culprits are Pablo and Pedro Vicario, twins and older brothers to the bride, Angela Vicario. Just hours before the murder, Angela was returned to her parents by her husband, the dashing Bayardo San Román, when he discovered she wasn’t a virgin as he had anticipated. Pablo and Pedro intimidate Angela into giving them the name of the man who deflowered her. She—perhaps on an impulse, or perhaps sincerely—tells them it was Santiago Nasar. To defend their sister’s honor and the honor of the family, the twins resolve to kill him. They go about town announcing their intentions to all who will listen, such that Santiago is one of the last people to learn that his life is in danger. Some of the townspeople try to prevent the murder but fail, others are too frightened to do so, and still others want Santiago dead. Most people simply don’t take the threat seriously—until it is too late.
The murder is now decades into the past. The Narrator, an old friend of Santiago’s and a distant relative of the Vicario family, has returned to the town to make sense of it all. He collects the testimonials of eyewitnesses and other townsfolk, in the hope of recreating a clear picture of the events that led up to the mysterious and apparently senseless murder. The chronicle he presents does not, in fact, unfold in chronological order. Instead, the Narrator leaps between the events of the murder, the events that led up to it, and the years that followed.
The Narrator begins by describing Santiago’s last few hours alive. He awakes early on the morning of his murder because the Bishop is visiting the town, and Santiago, along with many of the townspeople, want to receive him. He is apparently oblivious to the eminent danger he is in. Though he encounters a number of people—including his cook and her daughter—who have heard the Vicario twins are out to kill him, none of them warns him. The Bishop passes by on the river without stopping. As Santiago makes his way home, the Vicario twins pursue him and stab him to death at his front door.
However, before he explains the murder in detail, the Narrator recounts how Angela and Bayardo met and came to be married. Bayardo is an outsider to the community; he appears out of nowhere one day, delivered on a boat travelling upriver. He is dashing, charming, and extremely ostentatious with his money, of which he clearly has a lot. One day he spies Angela Vicario, a young woman from a poor, extremely conservative family, and immediately announces his intentions to marry her. After some trepidation the Vicario family accepts his proposal. They accept more or less on behalf of Angela, who has no say in the matter and does not love Bayardo. Little does her family know that, despite her strict, Catholic upbringing, Angela is not a virgin. The wedding day comes, and Bayardo, who funds the whole thing, pulls out all the stops. The entire town descends into the most raucous, debauched party anyone has ever seen. Santiago and the Narrator both attend. As the party blazes on into the night, Bayardo takes Angela off to their new house, where he discovers she is not a virgin. Enraged, he returns her to her parents in the early hours of the morning. Angela’s mother, Purísima del Carmen, beats her savagely, and calls her brothers, who are still out partying, back to the house. They interrogate her, and she tells them that Santiago Nasar took her virginity.
Pedro and Pablo Vicario resolve to kill Santiago in order to defend the honor of their family. They take the two best knives from their pigsty and bring them to the local meat market, where they proceed to sharpen them in full view of all the butchers setting up shop. They announce to everyone that they are going to kill Santiago. However, the butchers mostly ignore them, thinking them drunk. From the meat market the twins go to Clotilde Armenta’s milkshop to keep watch over Santiago’s house, which is across the street. They announce their intentions to everyone in the shop, including Clotilde. Almost no one takes them seriously, but when Colonel Lázaro Aponte hears of their plan he confiscates their knives. The twins simply retrieve new knives and return to Clotilde’s store. They wait for a light to come on in Santiago’s room, but this never happens. The Narrator explains that Santiago returned home and fell asleep without turning on the light.
The Narrator leaps ahead to the days following Santiago’s murder. He explains in gruesome detail the autopsy haphazardly performed on Santiago’s body. He recounts how the Vicario twins were arrested and awaited trial for three years, unable to afford bail, before finally being found innocent based on the “thesis of homicide in legitimate defense of honor.” The Vicario family left town, while Bayardo was dragged off by his family in a drunken, half-dead stupor. The Narrator lingers longest on Angela Vicario. He explains that, after Bayardo rejected her, she found herself falling deeply and mysteriously in love with him. For years, living her life as a seamstress, she wrote to him nearly every day. Her letters went unanswered until, finally, Bayardo, old and fat, showed up at her doorstep.
The Narrator completes his story with a full description of the murder. He explains his belief that Santiago had nothing to do with Angela, despite her insistence that he took her virginity, and so never understood his own death. After watching the Bishop pass, Santiago runs into his friend Cristo Bedoya, with whom he chats for a while. The two part ways and a friend informs Cristo Bedoya of the threats being made against Santiago’s life. Cristo runs off in search of Santiago but cannot find him. The Narrator explains that Santiago has ducked into his fiancée Flora Miguel’s house. There, Flora’s father Nahir explains to Santiago the danger he is in. Santiago runs into the main square, where a crowd has gathered. Confused, Santiago runs in circles until finding his way to the front door, pursued by the Vicario twins. Santiago’s mother, PlácidaLinero, thinks her son is already inside the house, so she locks the door. The Vicario twins trap Santiago at the locked door and stab him multiple times before running off. Santiago stumbles through the neighbor’s house to get to his back door, walks into his kitchen, and falls dead on the floor.