Penzler Pick, February 2002:
A book from Steve Thayer is always worth the wait. He has set three of them--The Weatherman
, Saint Mudd
, and Silent Snow
--in the Minneapolis area and has repeated several of his characters. But in The Wheat Field
he introduces a new cast of characters and moves the action to Kickapoo Falls, Wisconsin.
The narrator is Deputy Pennington, who takes us back to the year 1960 and the wheat field murders. Pennington has been in love with Maggie since they were in school together, but Maggie fell in love with Michael Butler and married him, so it is a shock to everyone when Michael and Maggie are found together, shot to death in that wheat field. At first glance it would appear to be a murder-suicide. Michael has been shot between the legs and Maggie's face has been shot off. The murder weapon is lying next to Maggie's outstretched hand, and the wheat around the bodies has been pressed down in a perfect circle with no shoe or car marks going in or out of that circle.
But there are some odd things about the murder scene, even apart from that perfect circle of wheat. Neither Michael nor Maggie is wearing clothes, yet there are no clothes on the ground. The only clue is the butt of a Lucky Strike lying near the bodies and three perfect holes in the flattened wheat. In addition, Maggie is wearing her wedding ring but not the class ring she always wore.
Except for the farmer who finds the body on his land, Deputy Pennington is the first to arrive on the scene. Is this, he wonders, sexual, and did somebody stand by and watch? Soon Sheriff Fats and Trooper Russ Hoffmeyer join him. Hoffmeyer soon admits to Pennington that he was once invited to join Michael and Maggie in a threesome--which he did, the whole episode being filmed. Pennington admits to some jealousy that he was never invited, and it isn't long, of course, before he becomes the major suspect in the double homicide and is arrested.
In the background of the story is the 1960 presidential campaign (most of the good folks of Kickapoo Falls are solidly behind Richard Nixon, though Deputy Pennington, before his arrest, has the rare chance for a short conversation with John F. Kennedy when he comes through town). Before the end of the story we will have learned a good deal about Wisconsin politics and the private sexual quirks of many of its fine, upstanding citizens.
Steve Thayer has produced here another tour de force of suspenseful and shocking storytelling that puts him in the first rank of today's crime novelists. --Otto Penzler
From Publishers Weekly
Shockwaves rock a 1960s small town when the grisly shotgun murder of two leading citizens sets the town's deputy sheriff against the sheriff and the politically powerful Gunn Club set. Deputy Pliny Pennington has carried a torch for Maggie Butler since their Kickapoo Falls, Wis., high school days, though she scornfully rejected him in favor of boys higher up the social ladder. When she is found in the middle of a wheat field with her face blown off beside her dead husband, Michael, Pliney is assigned the case and is promptly targeted by sinister forces intent on framing him for the murders. Shaken by the killings, a state cop admits to joining Maggie and Michael in sex games; Senate candidate Webster Sprague and his wife, Caren, were involved, too. Events get complex when Caren, who's seemingly run away with lots of Webster's money, calls Pliny long distance and feeds him clues that lead to sex film tapes giving leverage over Webster and perhaps revealing the killer in the wheat field. But just as Pliny gets close to a solution, he finds himself set up to take the fall for an even more heinous crime than the double murder, one linked to the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential race. Though the political connection is less than credible, Thayer has a knack for building tension and defining place, and his smalltown sinners are all too believable. The spectacular ending is only slightly marred by the questionable plot device that gets Pliny there. Agent, Elaine Koster.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.