Pop. 1280 is the first-person narrative of Nick Corey, the listless sheriff of Potts County, the "47th largest county in the state" (probably Texas). He lives in Pottsville which has a population of "1280 souls" (a number much reduced by the story's end). The narrative suggests that Sheriff Nick's tale dates to the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Sheriff Nick Corey presents himself as a genial fool, simplistic, over-accommodating, and harmless to a fault (given he is Pottsville's sole lawman). Early chapters are related in comic style representative of farce rather than hard-boiled crime fiction. From the outset Nick's problems appear to be those of a harmless fool, managing his shrew wife and idiot brother-in-law while simultaneously having affairs in town; a difficult election campaign against a more worthy candidate; negotiations with criminals and undesirables in Pottsville; and the evasion of work and physical exertion. Throughout a narrative that plumbs psychological depths particular to the novels of Jim Thompson, the farcical tone of Pop. 1280 is undermined by the emergence of a man far more cunning, ruthless, and psychotic than he presents himself.