When homesteader Dell Reddick Sr. decides to purchase a headstone for the son he lost 17 years ago, painful memories among his family members set into motion a series of events he could never have predicted. Swept up in the family ordeal is Deputy Sheriff Harley Jensen, who may be the only one who can restore the peace—if his own passions for one of the family don’t get in the way. Chris Harding Thornton unravels the intrigue and suspense in meticulously detailed fashion in her solid debut novel, Pickard County Atlas.
Set in 1978, the story takes place in the titular rural Nebraska county, where large tracts of farmland have been named after the people who lived there. Homesteads—many of which have folded or been abandoned—stretch over hundreds of acres, a detail which Thornton cannily uses to evoke the isolation and lonely frustration that bears down upon the remaining residents.
Harley is initially called to investigate a series of unusual thefts of clothing and other items from the homes of the recently deceased, as well as evidence of trespassing at other abandoned homes. One such excursion brings him in contact with Paul Reddick, the younger brother of Dell Jr., whose body was never found after he was killed in 1960 by Korean War veteran Rollie Asher.
Paul is no stranger to the law, as he has been in and out of jail on drug-related charges. Harley tries to go easy on him, knowing the trauma that Paul and his family have experienced. But when it becomes clear that both Paul and Harley are attracted to Paul’s older brother Rick’s wife, Pam, events build toward a confrontation for which neither is prepared.
Pickard County Atlas takes its time; there is no real sense of urgency or high stakes confronting Harley or any of the other characters. The closest thing to a central mystery is the weird series of thefts and break-ins. But Thornton, herself a seventh-generation Nebraskan, describes the landscape and interactions of the characters in such starkly realistic detail, you cannot help but get wrapped up in the novel’s noirish atmosphere and slow-burning mystery.