Paul recounts the story of the Detterick twins’ disappearance, rape, and murder. In the 1930s, a period when cotton plantations no longer exist but cotton farming is experiencing a brief revival, Klaus Detterick is the owner of a relatively prosperous cotton farm. One evening in June, his twin daughters, Cora and Kathe, decide to sleep out on the porch. In the morning, Klaus calls the family dog Browser, who fails to appear—a relatively normal occurrence. A few minutes later, Klaus’s wife Marjorie begins to prepare breakfast. She wakes her son Howie so he might go wake up the twins. Howie, however, soon comes back, distressed, with the alarming news that the girls are gone.
Paul’s mention of the end of cotton plantations highlights the history of slavery and racism that has shaped the American South—and still influences many characters’ minds even after the abolition of slavery. Paul recounts the disappearance of the twins step by step, making the reader follow the seemingly normal occurrences of the Dettericks’ day and the increasing sense of danger and doom that marks the narrative. This method builds suspense and fear.
Marjorie initially believes that the girls have merely gone off for a walk, but when she sees the scene on the porch she gives in to panic. She shrieks for her husband to come. Both parents see that the porch door has been violently unhinged, the girls’ blankets thrown to one side, and that there are drops of blood on the floor. Despite his wife’s pleas not to do so, Klaus and his son Howie set off, firearms in hand, in search of the girls. Marjorie, shrieking and weeping, believes that her twins were probably abducted by a group of vagrants or black men.
The drops of blood on the floor introduce the idea that the girls might be wounded—or worse: dead. Marjorie’s hypotheses about who the criminal might be are racist. She puts black men on the same level as vagrants, considering that there is something inherently evil or violent in black men that separates them from white people just as vagrants are detached from the laws and mores of a fixed place.
When Klaus and Howie go around the barn, they discover the dog Bowser’s dead body, his head turned around his neck—a feat that must have been performed by a man with extraordinary strength. Next to the dog, the men find sausages, which the attacker probably used to soothe the dog before killing him.
The dog’s murder is later used as evidence against Coffey, for it seems clear that only a man of his strength could have killed it. However, the use of sausages to soothe the dog also suggests that the man who killed it is cunning and premeditated his crime.
Klaus and Howie are gatherers, not hunters, and are therefore not adept at following someone’s trail. They nevertheless manage to find the aggressor’s tracks when they discover scraps of both girls’ pajamas in the field. In the meantime, as the two men are running after the aggressors, Marjorie calls the sheriff to inform him of the situation. The Trapingus County high sheriff, Homer Cribus, whom Paul describes as an incompetent alcoholic who depends on other people to get things done, calls up Bobo Marchant, who has dogs.
The search party is marked by inefficiency in its early stages, represented in the figure of the Sheriff. This detail serves as a reminder that even a lofty goal like the pursuit of justice is made up of individuals’ actions, and is therefore vulnerable to incompetence and ignorance.
Meanwhile, Klaus and Howie, who have by then found various pieces of the girls’ clothing soaked in blood, have slowed down their chase, under the growing feeling that, in the end, they are probably going to find a crime scene instead of two living girls. Behind them, they begin to hear the sounds of the search party that Deputy Robert McGee has put together much faster (Paul says) than the sheriff ever could have. As the group follows Bobo’s dogs, Rob McGee makes Klaus and Howie unload their weapons, sensing that, if they found the attacker, they would probably shoot him instead of abiding by the normal course of the law.
Deputy Rob McGee is presented as an honest, competent man intent on doing his job well and according to the law. McGee’s behavior suggests that the same act (killing a man) can be fair or unfair, moral or immoral, depending on the circumstances in which the act takes place (i.e. outside of the law or as punishment for a crime).
Two miles later, the party reaches the edge of the Trapingus river. There, they find the rest of Cora’s nightgown in an extremely bloody patch of land, and the sight of so much blood makes the many of the men sick to their stomachs. At a crossroads, Bobo’s dogs suddenly disagree as to where to go. Most of them want to go upstream, while two coonhounds want to head in the other direction. When Bobo gives them the scent of Cora’s nightgown again, the dogs settle on going downstream.
The quantity of blood that the search party finds emphasizes the utter inhumanity of this crime, and the fact that only an exceptionally cruel person could have committed it. The dog’s disagreement about which road to take appears as a trivial detail in the story of the Detterick twins’ murder, but later proves crucial in signaling that the man who has been condemned for this crime might not be the actual murderer.
After ten minutes, the men hear a strange howling, more terrifying than the sound any animal would make, and everyone realizes it is a man’s cry. Paul compares this inhuman cry to the screams some men make on their way to the electric chair, when they realize they are truly going to go to hell. In the heat of the moment, Bobo brings his dogs closer to him, out of fear of losing them to a violent psychopath. Frightened, the men reload their guns and Deputy McGee leads the group of stunned men onward, while still making sure that Klaus Detterick is under control.
Paul’s matter-of-fact comparison of this inhuman cry to a sound he has heard condemned inmates make is eerie and suggests that his job is, in a way, comparable to the desperate situation of the Detterick twins’ murder. In other words, killing someone—whether legally on the electric chair or illegally in the woods—is always a dreadful experience, marked by horror and despair.
When the group reaches the riverbank, the men all stop in their tracks, chilled by the horror of the scene before them. By the river, they see a gigantic man with a bloodstained jumper—John Coffey—carrying the naked bodies of the Detterick twins. Rocking the girls back and forth and crying at the top of his lungs, Coffey seems to be overcome with grief and remorse.
The situation in which the men find Coffey makes it seem clear, beyond any doubt, that Coffey is the murderer and that his tears are the result of his guilt. Later, though, it becomes apparent that even what appeared to be solid facts—such as Coffey’s remorse—are a matter open to interpretation, as Coffey was merely expressing anguish at the girls’ death.
Out of rage at seeing the dead bodies of his two little girls, Klaus Detterick throws himself at Coffey and kicks him in the temple, but Coffey is unaffected. He seems not to notice what is happening. When four men finally tear Klaus away from Coffey, Klaus slumps over and goes limp, as though giving in to some kind of electric shock.
Klaus’s reaction to touching Coffey represents his emotional shock at what has just happened, but also suggests that, in touching Coffey, he might have become aware of the man’s supernatural powers.
Deputy McGee steps forward to talk to Coffey, who still has tears rolling steadily down his face. McGee asks the man’s name. “John Coffey. Coffey like the drink, only not spelled the same way,” Coffey replies. When McGee points to Coffey’s jumper pocket, which he believes might contain a weapon, Coffey explains that it is only his lunch. Despite being overcome by the smell and bloody appearance of the two girls, whose heads have been dashed together, McGee leans in to examine Coffey’s pocket. He takes out, as Coffey has said, a small sandwich wrapped in paper and a pickle. The sausages that the Dettericks’ dog Browser must have eaten are, of course, missing.
Coffey’s repetition of the same phrase he later tells Paul suggests that he has limited mental capability, able only to focus on or remember a few details. While the absence of a weapon suggests that Coffey is not a violent man, the fact that his sandwich does not contain sausages is interpreted as incriminating evidence. Nothing in Coffey’s attitude, however, proves aggressive. It thus remains a mystery how a man like him could have committed such a crime.
When McGee asks John Coffey what happened, Coffey, tears still running down his face, replies: “I couldn’t help it. I tried to take it back, but it was too late.” McGee then tells Coffey he is under arrest for murder and spits in his face. At the trial, Paul recounts, the jury only takes forty-five minutes to settle Coffey’s fate.
The same sentences that Paul later hears John say in his cell are considered evidence of guilt, even though Coffey does not directly mention any crime.