Chris Harding Thornton’s debut crime novel, Pickard County Atlas, will keep readers in petrified suspense as a murder unwinds right in front of their eyes. This novel harnesses a kind of dark energy as it unfolds a highly private drama against the stark landscape of the Nebraska sandhills. It belongs to a genre that cannot help but remind me of Scott Thomas’s Violet and Andy Davidson’s In the Valley of the Sun, albeit without the supernatural elements of either, though all these authors seem to be students of Joe Lansdale, if more sober.  

A tightly wound plot follows a few characters around their sparse lives as they are inevitably drawn into the conflict. Deputy Harley Jensen harbors an eternal grudge against charismatic troublemaker Paul Reddick. Paul, who loves his mother as only an antihero can, searches abandoned houses at night for her after her psychotic break. Meanwhile, Paul’s brother Rick attempts to juggle the expectations not only of his rebellious brother, but also an overbearing father, and his claustrophobic wife, Pam, who wants to ditch their family. Pam, searching for some shelter in a bleak existence, throws herself into an affair with Deputy Harley before finally taking her cue to exit. 

Sure, the circle feels a little too tightly drawn, but it’s appropriate to their small, Midwestern town. Restricting the characters has the effect of placing this conflict in a particularly idiosyncratic frame. The criminal Reddicks only love one another out of obligation, and the ensuing feud depicted here feels tragic and intimately painful. Meanwhile, Harley, frustrated by his aging boss and mundane duties, knows that Paul Reddick commits minor crimes when he’s not looking, but his pursuit feels less vigilant than vengeful. It gets to the point where he’s actually bullying Paul and his friends when he’s supposed to be on the graveyard shift patrolling the town.

On one of these shifts, Harley runs into Pam, who wanders the town at night while trying to work up the nerve to leave the Reddick family and divorce Rick. Their initial encounter sparks a brief affair and it brings a tentative excitement to both of their lives, even though neither especially wanted it. Both characters seem to realize their loneliness after Pam initiates a sexual encounter, but neither one has any desire for romance. In this bleak world, the most intimate acts feel more like cries for help than expressions of passion.

Bleakness fills the setting, especially with the backdrop of elderly citizens having funerals, but the novel’s taut pacing makes it all believable, lifting up the atmosphere rather than the other way around. Harley’s obsessed with arresting Paul, because he knows that Paul has involvement with illicit drug use. Pam feels the walls of her trailer closing in further and further. Meanwhile, old men such as the Reddick father and Harley’s lazy sheriff boss seem to thrive in an arena where the young tear one another apart. 

Pickard County Atlas reads every bit as urgently as its story burns along. I went through the whole novel in a few days so it’s perfect for fans of Better Call Saul, who are patiently waiting for that last season.

Four out of five stars

Page count: 288

Favorite quote: “When she stood behind him, he could feel her. The presence of person with blood coursing through their veins. A body with thin electric signals firing inside.”

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