“The Scent of Rain and Lightning”
A well-known writer of mysteries, Nancy Pickard has recently flirted with more literary approaches to her genre, and “The Scent of Rain and Lightning” crackles with both the tautness of genre fiction and the richness of literature. A finalist in the 2011 High Plains Book Awards fiction category, it offers equal flashes of insight and humor.
The novel opens with its unmarried heroine, Jody Linder, in an awkward situation — she is in bed with Red Bosch, an accident-prone cowboy, just as her three strait-laced uncles arrive at her front door. A vivacious 26-year-old with a tragic past, Jody has been carefully guarded by the Linder clan. Now she must hear their shocking news: Billy Crosby, convicted 13 years earlier of murdering her father and mother, is out of prison. Like the arrival of Frank Miller in “High Noon,” Crosby’s return to Rose, Kan., sets the plot in motion. Events romp backward to the day of the crime and forward to the events of Crosby’s homecoming. Like any good mystery, the narrative introduces a number of possible perpetrators, who, unlike the scapegoat Billy, may have gotten off scot-free.
While avoiding such gimmicks as obvious cliffhanger chapter endings, Pickard paces the novel briskly. Still, she lingers just long enough on minor characters to illuminate economically stressed small-town life. The grocer who can only dream of retirement as his profits shrink and the bar owner who has served cheeseburgers for more than 13 years add depth. The sheriff whose re-election has been assured by the rich Linder family and who has unconsciously compromised his own standards to win their approval demonstrates how easily well-meaning people can purvey small-town corruption. Yet Rose, Kan., has its romantic side: “There was a legend that if a girl closed her eyes at the Rocks and made a wish for love, the first boy she saw when she opened her eyes would be her husband.” Of course, since this is a gritty little place, such romance is fleeting: “Some girls should have kept their eyes closed, Jody thought.”
Insights into major characters are just as trenchant and wry as Pickard’s observations of life on the high plains, with Jody refusing happiness because it makes her “anxious. ... A killer could hide in the corner, bugs lurked in bins, spiders jumped out of bathtubs.” Her Uncle Chase is also richly realized, a handsome flirt who loses his humor with the murder of his older brother and becomes a stern, avuncular presence.
“The Scent of Rain and Lightning” is an ambitious novel, and, at times, its ambition struggles to escape Pickard’s skillful control. Collin Crosby, for example, the convicted murderer’s son, is a tortured soul, but given the required pacing of the mystery genre, he hardly has room to unfold, and his torment is something readers must accept rather than experience.
At its best, however, this book strikes its target with brilliant description that should not be missed. It helps turn such otherwise static characters as Laurie Linder, Jody’s vanished mother, into true literary creations. Consider how a final epiphany brings Laurie out of self-absorbed narrow-mindedness to ecstatic communion with the land: “It looked transformed and magical in the shifting, changing light of the moon, stars, and clouds. Light rolled over the Rocks like waves, changing their colors from soft orange to gold to white to silver to black and back to gold again.”
Cara Chamberlain teaches composition at Rocky Mountain College. She is the author of “Hidden Things,” a collection of poetry from FootHills Publishing.