Not a classic "whodunit" or procedural, "The Scent of Rain and Lightning" nonetheless has the elements of a great mystery: a violent death, a disappearance, a man in prison who may not have committed a crime, and long-kept family secrets that begin to leak out.
The story, set in fictional Rose, Kansas, takes place over two time periods. Pickard — who lives in Merriam — tantalizingly unfolds the two plot lines, starting briefly in the present, then going back to give us most of the events of the night 23 years before, when the noise of a raging storm swallowed the gunshot and the screams.
In the present, a young woman is forced to revisit the past as the man who was convicted of murdering her father — and presumably her mother, who disappeared that same night, but whose body was never found — is released from jail after doubts about his guilt arise.
Just 3 years old when she was orphaned, Jody Linder was raised in the protective care of her grandparents. She has returned home to Rose to teach school when her uncles bring her the news of Billy Crosby's release, and her initial response is, understandably, anger. But once she learns more, and talks to Billy's son, Collin, whom she knew in childhood, she's not sure about anything.
But as we learn, Billy Crosby was a drunk and a wife-beater, cruel to livestock and chafing under any kind of authority. It wasn't hard for anyone in Rose to believe that he'd killed Hugh-Jay Linder and his pretty young wife, Laurie. Except his son, 7 at the time, has always believed otherwise. And we see enough of selfish, flirty Laurie to have a hint of doubt, the whisper of an idea that maybe, just maybe, she wasn't simply an innocent victim in all of this.
Once Billy returns to Rose, things don't settle down quietly. More killings follow, old memories surface, and Jody's life is upended.
Pickard deftly moves the story forward, and everything revealed in the end has been set up somewhere along the way — the hallmark of a good fair-play mystery — but there's more to "The Scent of Rain and Lightning" than pure plot.
The characters are well drawn and their relationships artfully presented. Pickard understands the nuanced details of family dynamics as well as the delicate psychological state of any family who has lost a member too soon. And she presents, in an understated way, the unavoidable link between the orphaned girl and the convicted killer's son.
"The Scent of Rain and Lightning" hurtles along at such a clip that it will keep people up late reading, but the characters will stay with readers far longer than the next morning.