cover image Pickard County Atlas

Pickard County Atlas

Chris Harding Thornton. MCD, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-23125-5

In Thornton’s impressive debut, a hard-edged noir set in 1978 Nebraska, Pickard County deputy sheriff Harley Jensen has to deal with an unresolved case involving the missing body of a murdered child. In 1960, seven-year-old Dell Reddick startled farmhand Rollie Asher, a Korean War vet suffering from PTSD, who lashed out with a shovel, crushing the boy’s skull. Asher phoned the sheriff to report what he’d done, but neglected to say where he put the body before blowing out his brains. Despite Jensen’s dogged efforts at the time, the remains were never found, and the open wound shaped the subsequent lives of the boy’s family members. Whatever healing took place in the years since is threatened by Dell’s father’s decision in 1978 to finally erect a headstone for his son, even though he doesn’t know the body’s location. Jensen gets enmeshed in the lives of the Reddick family as he crosses paths repeatedly with Dell’s younger brother, Paul, who may be involved with drugs and arson, and becomes emotionally involved with the wife of Dell’s other brother, Rick. The gut punch of an ending is satisfyingly bleak and an appropriate match for the book’s downbeat tone. Thornton’s superior gift for evocative prose (“The glare blotted out all else. North-central Nebraska, the spot where sand met loam, rose and fell around him, cast black against the shadow of sky”) augurs well for her next work. Fans of Lou Berney will be pleased. Agent: Emily Forland, Brandt & Hochman. (Jan.)