My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Several recent mystery stories from Laura Lippman have delved not only into the whodunnit aspect of crime fiction, but also the impact it has on the characters and the community. Following that trend is Nancy Pickard’s “The Scent of Rain and Lightning.”
On a hot afternoon, Jody Linder is visited by her three uncles to let her know that Billy Crosby is being released from prison. Billy was sent to jail 23 years earlier for the murder of her father and on suspicion of doing something to her mother.
Jody is shaken by the news, especially as she’s just returned to town to teach English at the local high school. The mystery of who killed her father and where her mother disappeared to that fateful evening has haunted her for years and there are whispers in town that maybe Billy didn’t really do it.
At this point, “Scent” flashes back to the fateful afternoon, showing the events that led up to the death of Jody’s father and her mother’s disappearance. But while the story leads up to the events, putting in place a variety of potential suspects, it avoids telling us who was killed, why and how until late in the story. Instead, the story looks at the nature of justice and how Billy Crosby probably deserved to go to jail for a series of other crimes but may or may not have been the one who killed Jody’s father.
Pickard carefully introduces each character and then shows the fall-out and implications of the crime. The story develops in surprising ways with sympathetic and flawed characters. Even the suspected murderer Billy has his moments when you may feel more for him that animosity. Pickard also helps us understand that Billy’s family suffers just as much as the Linders do when Billy is arrested, tried and convicted of the crime.
The story sets up a number of potential other suspects as well as a myriad of motives. When the big reveal comes, it’s a satisfying resolution to the mystery, but also one that has some interesting implications for the characters we’ve got to know during the story. The novel looks at the nature of justice and forgiveness as the story unfolds.