It is the story of an alcoholic British consul who is stationed in a small town south of Mexico City in 1938. The story takes place on November 2, the traditional Mexican called Day of the Dead or All Souls' Day. It is based on Lowry's experience in the Mexican town of Cuernavaca on the same day in 1936. Lowry, who was a heavy drinker, went there with this first wife in an attempt to save their marriage. The attempt failed.
The book was rejected by many publishers before it was finally accepted in the United States and Britain. The British publisher wanted substantial cuts but Lowry refused to make them, explaining in great detail in a letter from Mexico why the book should remain intact. Lowry prevailed and the book was initially well received and continued through several editions.
John Huston directed a film adaptation of the book in 1984. Albert Finney was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as the consul.