Thursday, June 10, 2010

Murder's Long Shadow: Nancy Pickard, THE SCENT OF RAIN AND LIGHTNING

It's not true that you have to live in the country to appreciate a good thunderstorm -- I've seen some glorious ones that illuminate the soul of a cityscape, and I've savored them from suburbs where you can't even tell for sure which direction the storm is heading in, because the houses block the sky.

But for power and drama, watching a storm outdoors where open fields or jagged peaks interact with all that sound and flash is hard to beat.

Twenty-six-year-old Jody Linder's family members mostly find that storms mean work: animals to gather together, the ranch to care for, maybe trucks sliding off slick roads. Her grandmother Annabelle Linder, matriarch to the Kansas ranching family, loves a good storm, though, and her grandfather, Hugh Senior, can savor the break that he gets when there's too much weather to do anything about.

But not Jody. A powerful thunderstorm marked the night when her father was murdered, her mother vanished, and her grandparents took her into their home. She was only three years old, and her instant terror of storms nearly defeated her family's efforts to bring her out from the shadow of the killing.

As THE SCENT OF RAIN AND LIGHTNING opens, Jody's almost having fun, with a job nailed down, a friendly lover, and well established on her own in the home that she still calls her parents' house. But the unannounced -- and unprecedented -- arrival of her three uncles at her doorstep shatters her fragile happiness with terrifying news: The man arrested and jailed for her father's murder has just been released from prison. Violent, brutal, crude, he's almost surely coming her way.
At the table her mother had painted yellow, in the room where Laurie had cooked meals for her and her daddy, Jody sat with her shoulders hunched and her hands clasped between her thighs, waiting for somebody, any one of them, to start making sense.

"It's weird," she said, sniffling, taking stuttering breaths. "Don't you think this is a weird coincidence? I move back to town for the first time -- and he gets out of jail and moves back, too?" Her shoulders lifted in a shudder and more tears escaped before she trapped them with a tissue. "I don't understand this. When did all this happen? How could it happen? Why did they let him go? You're going to have to explain this to me."
Kansas has long been home to Nancy Pickard, a crime novelist who has won about every award possible for her work. She now also spends time in Florida, and she grew up in Missouri. But it's Kansas that comes to life here, with its wide spaces, hard-rock interjections, and communities where everyone knows a bit about you, whether true or exaggerated. In the town of Rose, Kansas, the bartender even knows how to handle you when you drink too much.

And the town, or most of it, is already gathering to protect Jody. But Billy Crosby is a killer born and bred, and nothing's going to be easy -- including the uncomfortable fact that if there's anyone beyond her family with whom Jody has ever bonded, it's that murderer's son, Collin, and for sure, that's a star-crossed attraction that has withered long since.

Worse yet, it appears that a few people in town have always thought Billy Crosby was rushed through court and to prison.  Is there really a chance that justice failed? Did Jody's powerful ranching family seize the wrong killer?

In Pickard's hands, Jody struggles to understand why so many secrets have been kept around her, and wrestles with both her conscience and the real dangers around her, to find a way to pierce the darkness of the storm.

Smoothly written, intense, evocative, this is more than a crime novel -- it's an exploration of the power of families for good and bad, and the kinds of courage involved in leaving behind childhood and easy answers. At times gentle, often suspenseful, always firmly grounded in place and season and weather, this book deserves to become a classic of American writing. I couldn't put it down.

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