Accomplished mystery writer Pickard (The Truth Hurts, 2002, etc.) skillfully exposes insidious elements in a small town.
Two smitten teenagers in Small Plains, Kan., contemplate making love for the first time. Sent downstairs by girlfriend Abby Reynolds to fetch condoms from her doctor father’s supply cabinet, Mitch Newquist instead secretly witnesses the brutal disfigurement of a dead girl’s corpse by the respectable Dr. Reynolds. Mitch recognizes the girl as a local maid from another town. Being an honorable boy bound for college, he discloses what he has seen to his own father, the town judge. To the boy’s amazement and growing bitterness, his parents cover up the incident, seeming to believe Dr. Reynold’s lies about it, and send Mitch away the very next morning. Seventeen years later, Abby still lives in Small Plains and owns a tree service. Mitch’s mother, Nadine, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, dies of exposure in a snowstorm after running out in her nightgown to visit the grave of the maid who died so mysteriously. Locals call this unknown girl the Virgin of Small Plains, and her grave has become a shrine, attracting people from all over who believe in miraculous healing. The novel moves back and forth in time, from its present in 2004 to the definitive events of 17 years before. Among the players in the original drama who must now confront the damage it inflicted are the town sheriff and his two boys, who found the girl in the snow (they denied knowing her, although both boys were in love with her); and Abby and Mitch, torn from each other in the heat of young love. Pickard demonstrates an effective restraint with the material, so that when Mitch returns to the town for a reckoning, the shame of the town fathers leads to a satisfying dénouement.
A quietly fashioned, credible tale about the loss of innocence.