The Scent of Rain and Lightning, by Nancy Pickard

>> Friday, July 27, 2012

TITLE: The Scent of Rain and Lightning
AUTHOR: Nancy Pickard

PAGES: 337
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton

SETTING: Contemporary and 1980s US
TYPE: Mystery

Twenty-three years ago, when she was only three months old, Jody Linder's father was murdered as she slept in her cot. Her mother vanished, presumed dead. Local trouble-maker Billy Crosby confessed to the murder and was locked up, leaving his wife and son to face the consequences in the small Kansas town of Rose. But his son Collin, now a lawyer, has successfully petitioned for a retrial, which means that - for now - Billy is back in town. Jody is horrified - the man who tore her family apart is living just a few streets away. So why does she find herself wondering if Collin is right? What if Billy was innocent, and her close-knit family has been hiding a terrible secret all these years? Haunting and powerful, this is Nancy Pickard's finest achievement to date.
Twenty-three years earlier, Jody Linder's family suffered a devastating tragedy. Her father was shot dead and her mother disappeared. Billy Crosby, who used to work in the family ranch and had just been fired, was arrested for the murders. He always insisted he was innocent, but the evidence was enough that he was convicted anyway and sent to jail, where he's been ever since.

And then Jody receives the news that Billy is being released from jail. His son, now a lawyer, has brought to the governor's attention some big problems with the original trial. Everyone knew Billy had done it, so it seems the sheriff didn't see the point of investigating the murder properly, especially since it would just have prolonged the agony for the wealthy and influential Linder family.

Jody is initially outraged. There is no doubt in her mind that Billy murdered her parents. She also feels betrayed by Collin, Billy's son, who has made this happen. Despite the murders and the gulf between their social positions, there has always been a connection between them, albeit one they have ignored. But then she starts asking some questions, and begins to realise just how shoddy the original investigation was, and that Billy's guilt is not as clear-cut as everyone always though. But if not Billy, then who? And what will this person do now that people have started looking at the case again?

I didn't know quite what to expect when I started this. What I got was a really interesting portrayal of a community in decline and a psychologically nuanced mystery. I also got a book that absorbed me completely until the final sections, where, unfortunately, the author lost control of her story a little bit.

The book starts with Jody receiving the news of Billy's release, but pretty soon, we're back 23 years earlier, exploring the events leading to the night of her parents' death. I assumed this was going to be a quick flashback, and was surprised to see it wasn't. In fact, the full first half of the book takes place then, and I was even more surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

When I get that kind of thing, I'm usually anxious to get back to the present day, but it was so well done I was happy enough to stay there. The characters are interesting, and the drama is of the kind I like: i.e. not too soap-operaish or over-the-top. And it turns out that knowing what's about to happen doesn't ruin the suspense at all. It both makes it more poignant, and makes you examine all the evidence as it's happening, trying to guess who it is that did it.

Once we're back with Jody in the present-day, the story starts out strong. Jody's increasing realisation that Billy might not have done it is very well done, and so was Pickard's depiction of how a crime could be so mishandled without anyone actually setting out to convict an innocent man. It wasn't that they decided to railroad Billy, they simply had no doubts at all that he'd done it, and that made everyone blind to anything that suggested otherwise. I also liked that Pickard doesn't have Billy be some sort of heroic innocent. He's a mean bastard, who deserved going to jail, even if not for this particular thing.

So there was a lot I enjoyed, but I ended the book slightly unsatisfied. Suddenly, the story that had previously been focused on characters and community becomes melodramatic and unbelievable, with chases and gunmen on the rampage. It felt weird, kind of tacked on to the rest of the story.

I also felt Jody and Collin's relationship was a bit half-baked. It needed a lot more development to feel real and make me believe in it. Much as I liked Collin as a character, I just didnt.

So, some mixed feelings in the end, but on the whole, I thought this was a gripping mystery, people by really interesting characters, and so would recommend it.



Susan/DC,  27 July 2012 at 20:20  

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm a bit puzzled that a man convicted of murder would be let out of jail while awaiting a new trial. Even though the investigation was mishandled 23 years before, does that void the jury's verdict so that he is released? Just wondering if this is explained in the book (or if one of your blog readers is a trial lawyer who could answer that question).

Rosario 27 July 2012 at 20:40  

Well, the details are slightly fuzzy now, since it's been a few weeks, but I don't think there was supposed to be a new trial at all. The Governor might have pardoned him, would that make more sense?

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