Posts Tagged ‘In Cold Blood’

Given that I generally prefer fiction to nonfiction, I was somewhat surprised by how many of the books I’d read in the All-Time Best 100 nonfiction books since 1923 — which was when Time  — as in the magazine — began.  http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2088856_2088860,00.html

Naturally, I’d read all the four nonfiction novels, including Capote’s In Cold Blood, although I would have subbed Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff for The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I also found favorites in autiobiography and memoir, biography, essays, history, social history, science, sport, food writing and war. But, where I wonder, are religion and travel? Ah, see history for Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, memoir for Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.

Mmm.  I’m pretty spotty in culture and politics, weak in ideas and business. I’ve never read Keynes or Chomsky, or Neibhur or Said, or a bunch of others.  And I really doubt these days that I’m ever going to get around to The Nature and Destiny of Man, or What Color is My Parachute?

I read nonfiction for the same reason I read fiction — for entertainment and enlightenment, and for narrative and story. Perusing this list, I note that my favorites in any category are mostly all good stories: All the President’s Men (politics), And the Band Played On (health), The Last Lion (biography), Slouching Towards Bethlehem (essays), Dispatches (war), The Best and the Brightest (history), and so on. Notable exceptions would be Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, which is marvelously written literary criticism/history, and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which is essential reading, and rereading, for writers.

Rereading is on my mind, because I’m on vacation and I’m immersing myself in old favorites. All novels, so far, although I did recently pick up A Moveable Feast again after reading The Paris Wife.

But there are a couple others, too, I will read again, like John Hersey’s moving Hiroshima and Virginia Woolf’s exhortation to readers, A Room of One’s Own.  I finally made it through William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich several years ago, so I’m not up  for that again. But  I’m not ruling out a rereading of Shelby Foote’s magnificent The Civil War. What a story! Which reminds me. Where is my paperback of Gone With the Wind?

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I knew the thunderstorm was on its way last night, not only because of the pillowing dark clouds in the distance but also because of the sharp smell of ozone and damp earth carried on the wind. Nancy Pickard  aptly titles her atmospheric new mystery, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, as she brews a family drama on the Kansas plains.

It was on one stormy summer night in 1986, with the rain coming down in torrents, that Hugh-Jay Linder, eldest son of a prominent ranching family in small-town Rose, was shot dead in his house, and his pretty wife Laurie disappeared. The only good things to come out of that night were the survival of  three-year-old Jody, out at the ranch with her grandparents, and the quick arrest and conviction of local malcontent Billy Crosby. But now, just as grown-up Jody has returned to Rose to teach high school, word comes from her three uncles that Crosby’s getting out of prison and returning to Rose as well. His lawyer son Collin has convinced the governor that Billy was railroaded and should get a new trial.

Cue thunder, lightning, anger, fear. Pickard skillfully moves back and forth from that first summer to the present. If Billy Crosby is truly innocent, who shot good-hearted Hugh-Jay and made off with Laurie? Her body has never been found, only a bloodied sundress in an abandoned pick-up. As Jody searches for the truth, she (and readers) gradually become aware of several dark secrets in the Linder family’s past.

Pickard creates credible. complex characters, and the plot propels the action forward. Wary readers will spot the villain of the piece (too many red herrings for my taste) but the resolution rings true. Pickard also uses one of Kansas’ most striking geographic features — the towering Monument Rocks created by ice-age glaciers — to excellent effect. She calls them the Testament Rocks and moves them to a fictional but fully authentic location.

If The Scent of Rain and Lightning has the impact of a summer storm, then Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places comes on like a winter blizzard, chilling to the bone. Another gripping tale of  murder in Kansas, with overtones of  Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it came out last year and is now available in paperback.

Narrator Libby Day was seven when she crawled out of a window of a rundown farmhouse and hid in the woods, thus becoming the sole survivor of “The Satanic Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Little Libby’s testimony helped send her fifteen-year-old brother Ben to prison for the bloody murders of her mother and two older sisters in the mid-1980s. Now, a quarter century later, Libby’s an emotionally stunted and bitter woman in her early 30s wondering how she’s going to get by now that the financial kindness of strangers has finally run out.

Enter some new strangers — the very strange members of the Murder Club, who are obssessed with famous crimes. They’ll pay Libby to get in touch with people from her past — her no-good father Runner, her long-estranged aunt Diane, even Ben in prison, and his supposedly devil-worshiping, dope-smoking friends from long ago if she can find them.

Flynn’s compelling story shifts easily from Libby’s present to the events leading up to the murders told from various family members’ perspectives. But her take-no-prisoners, unflinching narrative can be as hard to read as it is to put down. Failing farms, boarded-up storefronts, seamy strip clubs, a homeless camp on a toxic waste dump, abandoned grain silos.  

Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, featured a character scarred by cutting. She slices even deeper in Dark Places. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Open Book: I bought my copies of Nancy Pickard’s The Scent of Rain and Lightning (Random House) and Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (Crown).

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