Seldom have I read a mystery novel more in the moment than Richard Thompson’s Big Wheat. It’s the summer of 1919, and heartbroken by lover Mabel who has cast him off, twenty-three year old North Dakota farm hand Charlie Kreuger pins his abusive father to the kitchen table with a carving knife and hits the road to seek his fortune.
Unfortunately, Mabel has become one of the long string of victims left behind by the Windmill Man, one of the creepier villains of recent crime fiction, and Charlie’s disappearance in conjunction with Mabel’s has led local law enforcement to believe Charlie killed her and ran away. The sheriff is after him and so is the Windmill Man, who is afraid Charlie can identify him.
But Charlie makes plenty of friends along the way, too, including George Ravenwing, a chance-met Lakota Indian who may or may not be corporeal, Avery, the paterfamilias of the Ark (just read it) who gives Charlie his heart’s desire, a job on a steam engine, and Emily, the feisty Brit who becomes his new love.
Thompson has a real feel for landscape. Here’s Charlie looking at morning on the prairie in the threshing season:
“…To the east and south, where the predawn light had still not appeared, the black landscape was suddenly defined and given depth by first dozens, then hundreds of flickering orange points of light. At first, Charlie didn’t recognize them as boiler fires. There were so many, and they stretched to the horizon, as far as he could see. The steam engineers of the plains were lighting off their fireboxes for the day, warming up the big boilers to make steam…”
Just for fun, found this photo of a belt-driven threshing machine, circa the time of Big Wheat, on lookANDsee.
The title is of course a take-off on Big Oil, and Thompson uses this summer of discontent and serial murder to illuminate that crucial moment when agriculture in America began to change over from family farms to ConAgra Foods, and he does it with wit and style. Here’s one of my favorite passages, when avaricious banker Emil Puckett, thwarted from stealing Joe Wick’s farm out from under him, mulls over the decline of the western world:
“…Probably all due to the war, he thought. People went over to France, picked up its loose morals, and brought them back home. Pretty soon the whole country was full of upstarts and Bohemians. There was a rumor just that month that a professional baseball team had taken some gamblers’ money to deliberately lose the upcoming World Series, if you could believe such a shocking thing…a formerly sensible President of the United States was advocating fixing up the nation’s sovereignty to that wobbly-commie League of Nations. Worst of all, it looked as though women were about to get the vote…”
Talk about setting a scene. This is not what we in the business call an expository lump, a gigantic dump of information left for the narrative to stub its toe on. No, this is a master hand coloring a character in all the way to the edges, while at the same time firmly fixing his novel in place and time, with the reader barely noticing.
That, folks, is craftsmanship. Solid plot, a villain who gets more out of control and more terrifying with every turn of the page, good dialogue, wonderful description of land and weather, and great characters combine to make this a really good read.
Here’s me, selling Big Wheat to the crowd at the Juneau Public Library on February 4th.