By Richard A. Thompson
Poisoned Pen Press 2011
World War I is done and Charlie Krueger’s older brother is never coming home. Charlie, his sister and their mother must cope with an increasingly abusive drunken father and husband. The summer of 1919 wanes and vast acreages of the Middle West prairies are thick with ripening grain. Up the long reaches from the banks of the Platte and the Missouri come the contract threshing machines. Most are followed by raffish rootless men called bindlestiffs, who supplement a farmer’s friends and relatives on the threshing crews. The crews are often peopled by men of questionable backgrounds and are occasionally eyed with suspicion by local sheriffs who rarely chase criminals beyond their county boundaries.
When Charlie Krueger has a final confrontation with his father, he leaves behind a sorrowful mother and sister and the local girl he thought he’d love forever. He becomes a bindlestiff, traveling from farm to farm, learning the threshing business and nurturing his love for machines.
The machines are new, complicated and prone to breakdowns. Charlie hooks up with a marvelously conceived traveling machine repair crew that becomes his new family. But lurking in the background is a killer, a killer who believes Charlie saw his latest brutal deed. He seeks to find and murder Charlie. Meanwhile, the sheriff of Charlie’s home county has developed leads which point him toward Charlie as a murderer.
This then is the roiling plot which moves the story forward. Carefully constructed and set against the vast reaches of the plains states, the novel evokes a time and place and the attitudes of the people and the land in a powerful and moving way. Readers will smell the dust, drip sweat and shrivel under the burning sun right along with the threshing crews. They’ll feel a clutch in the night as the sheriff and the murderer draw closer and they’ll empathize with the casual corruption and the surmounting goodness of the characters the author has created.
A fine, exciting and unusual well-written novel I am pleased to recommend to all readers of crime fiction. Winner of the 2011 prestigious Minnesota Book Award for Genre Fiction.