The Scent of Rain and Lightening by Nancy Pickard
This mystery-cum-family saga held me in thrall during a red-eye flight across the Tasman and kept me guessing until the final chapters. Set in Kansas, it's the story of Jody Linder who is suspicious of happiness as she knows first-hand how unreliable it can be.
"At all times people she knew lost their homes, their ranches, their jobs," we're told. "Or they died just when you least expected them to."
When Jody is 3-years-old her father is murdered and her mother disappears. The Linders are a rich, influential family who dominate the little town they live in and the local ne'er do well, Billy Crosby, is quickly spirited off to jail for the shocking crime. But years later, the verdict is questioned - and Billy is released, coming back to live just a few streets away from the now adult Jody, who begins to question whether he really is the man who left her orphaned.
It's Pickard's characters that make this book such a pleasure to read, especially the Dallas-style family- the tough old cattle rancher, his three golden sons and his discontented daughter-in-law. Pickard slips effortlessly between the novel's present and the late-summer of the murders, setting up her story. She weaves in romance and faithfully details small-town American life without ever letting the pace flag. A sensitive and expressive writer, she brings rural Kansas - its landscape, weather and community - alive. The mystery at the centre of this book drives it but it's the exploration of Jody's character that makes it such a classy ride - courageous, damaged, attracted to the one man in town she's not meant to go near, she struggles to work out how and why her family was destroyed.
I'd be astonished if you predict the way this story ends. Thriller-lovers may complain the denouement comes too far out of left field to be credible but, for me, it was a satisfying read: rich and tender, with full-bodied characters and loads of atmosphere.