The Virgin of Small Plains, Nancy Pickard, Ballantine, $23.95.
I wondered where Nancy Pickard had been, and now I know - she's veering off the beaten track yet again in what has become one of the more interesting careers in mystery fiction. After satisfying readers for years with her strong Jenny Cain series, she took an abrupt turn to the darker side with her series featuring true crime writer Marie Lightfoot, and now she seems to be heading for Jane Smiley territory with her new novel, The Virgin of Small Plains. It's perhaps unfair to compare any novel with Smiley's masterpiece, A Thousand Acres, but Pickard's stands up well to the scrutiny. Smiley's novel was based, like Pickard's, on family secrets in a small town and the kind of ripple effect they have. Pickard, though, is a mystery writer, and she brings her mystery writer's tool kit to bear on this strong formula, embroidering on it and changing it somewhat. The story is character based and the final resolution is more of an "I thought so" than an "aha" moment. But a master storyteller like Nancy Pickard includes plenty of surprises to keep things hopping, from the first chapter on.
The story, set in Small Plains, Kansas, is full of the poetry of the plains - there's a scene later in the book where there's a tornado coming through town and the beauty of Pickard's writing is more than equal to the task. The book begins at the grave of the "virgin" - the burial site of a murdered girl, who has never been identified. The virgin seems to grant prayers and she's turned to in time of need by various townspeople and even people from out of town. Then the story backtracks to 1987, when teenagers Mitch and Abby have their lives turned upside down by the discovery of a young woman's body in a field. Mitch sneaks down to Abby's father's office (he's a doctor) in search of condoms, and hearing noises hides in the closet, where he sees the sheriff bring in a dead body, and sees the doctor helping the sheriff to hide the body's identity. When Mitch runs home in a panic and tells his father what he's seen, he's immediately sent away to school, never to return (or be heard from by anyone, including Abby). The story doesn't take up again until Mitch comes back to town, when there are repercussions for all the families involved - as well as their now grown children.
Pickard is too natural a storyteller to let much fancy woolgathering transpire about what might have been take place - instead, through a skillful series of narrative ties, she establishes what Mitch's absence, and what the cover up of this girl's death, have done to everyone involved. It's the kind of story that could only happen within the confines of a claustrophobic small town, a setting Pickard paints so well that by the end of the story Small Plains and its residents seem absolutely real. When the final pieces of the puzzle fall into place it's a total, compelling package - a great story, wonderfully drawn characters, and a vivid setting. The resolution may be, like life, a little messy, but the hand of the artist has been there to tidy up many of the strands. This is a wonderful book, definitely one of the best of the year, and one I was sorry to finish.
The Virgin of Small Plains is an Independent Mystery Booksellers pick for "Killer Books" in June.
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