"...this was Rose, Kansas, after all. Only the year before, a pencil tornado had dropped down and killed three people only a few miles from her hometown...In the winter, there were ice storms, in the summer, there were grass fires...Or, [people] died just when you least expected them to. A person could, for instance, belong to a nice family living an ordinary life in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and on some innocent Saturday night, violent men could drop in like those tornadoes and turn those nice people into the dead stars of a Truman Capote book. Such things happen." When I read that paragraph on the first page, I was hooked!
There is a subtle connection between this story and In Cold Blood, the true story of the Clutter family who were murdered in their home in Holcomb, Kansas. The book is set in fictional Rose, Kansas, located 350 miles west of Kansas City (Holcomb is about 380 miles west of KC) and revolves around the murder of two members of an influential and respected family. This tale brings out an aspect of the Clutter case I had never considered - what happens to the family members who were left behind? In this case, it's Jody, daughter of the murder victims, who is turned into somewhat of a sideshow attraction for the town. She grows up in the spotlight of her parents' deaths and, although the townspeople have good intentions, she can't escape that smalltown celebrity status. She is always thought of as the girl who's parents were murdered and that event shapes her life and her relationships.
Now, after more than 20 years, the man convicted of the killings is being released from jail and returning to the small town. Through the reactions of the community and her family, Jody gleans details of the crime that she has never known, and begins to question the story she has grown up believing and the guilt of the man she has always hated. Through a series of flashbacks, we finally learn the whole story of what happened that tragic night.
Ms. Pickard's writing is phenomenal - the perfect mix of psychological drama, mystery and romance. She captures the essence of a small Kansas town where major crimes are rare, and the impact on those who, by no choice of their own, are caught in the middle of the biggest thing that ever happened there - both the victims' family and the convict's family. The cast of characters is large, but they are so well defined that you'll feel part of the clan by the time you're through.
In spite of the shadows of the Clutter family that hover over this story, it is anything but predictable. Take away all the emotional and intellectual angles and underneath is a clever, engrossing mystery plot. Other authors are hoping that you don't read their novel next after finishing this one, because few will measure up.
I was lucky to meet and lunch with Ms. Pickard during her stop at our library on her promotional tour when her previous book, The Virgin of Small Plains, was chosen as the Kansas Reads book of the year for 2009. I loved hearing her talk about how she writes and her recent turn to setting her books in Kansas. You can see a short interview with her on Barnes and Noble that will give you an idea of how fascinating she is.
The Scent of Rain and Lightning gets my highest recommendation. It's a "Must Read".