Who says small towns are safe? Sometimes the most haunting crimes come from places where people don't lock their doors at night. In Chris Harding Thornton's "Pickard County Atlas," the man who is supposed to be handling all of a Nebraska town's trouble, 47-year-old sheriff deputy Harley Jenner, is privately seeking to forget his own.
Every night, making the after-dark patrol in the town he grew up in, Harley's past comes out to haunt him — a decades-old family tragedy. He thinks he knows the difference between running from the past and living with it, but he drinks and sleeps a little too much on weekends to tell himself that he's truly living with witnessing what happened to his mother.
Harley can't hide behind his stoicism and his badge, however, not even with the local losers he pulls over for pills and DUIs. Everybody in town knows his story — it's hard to forget. He's become an expert in batting away their sympathy; otherwise, people look at him like he's a "drowned puppy." His childhood farmhouse on the edge of town is still abandoned — unsellable; too much history — and he regularly pays it a visit to make sure it's not being maligned by firebugs or "chain-smoking squatters drinking Cutty Sark from gallon jugs."
A cold case raises Harley's ghosts even more when the family of a missing boy, who was murdered by a local but whose body was never found, decide to formally put the search to rest 18 years later and lay a headstone. The incident traumatized the town's collective consciousness and continues to reverberate in unexpected ways.
"Pickard County Atlas" is set in 1978, which isn't referred to directly in the book but can be indirectly pieced out by references to car models (Jenner drives a Fury), drugs (quaaludes are still around), wall-mounted kitchen phones, "Donahue" on 13-inch TV sets, and a clever reference to Richard Pryor on the "Tonight Show."
In this debut novel, Thornton has skillfully created a hyper-detailed setting of the Nebraska plains, a landscape of empty farmhouses lined with the windbreak, described right down to the native plants ("bunchgrass" and "soapweed yucca").
It's of note that "Pickard" is part of a larger trend, a new genre of crime fiction books set outside of big cities, called "rural noir."
Whatever you call it, "Pickard" is a gripping mixture of cop procedural and a psychological story of rebirth that gives one man the chance at leaving his past behind. Suspense builds as Harley realizes that redemption hides in the unlikeliest of places, and that the call is coming from inside the house — or in this case, a farmhouse on the edge of town.
Sheila McClear is a writer and author in New York City.
Pickard County Atlas
By: Chris Harding Thornton.
Publisher: MCD/FSG, 288 pages, $26.49.