Nancy Pickard’s THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS
Expanding the form of the mystery
I first met Nancy Pickard at a conference back in the mid-1980’s, when she wrote the first books of the highly enjoyable Jenny Cain mysteries. At another conference, in the 1990’s, she explained her move away from that series by saying, rather plaintively, “Jenny quit talking to me.” But I personally think the series mystery form just wasn’t big enough for what Nancy wanted to do. Neither were the Marie Lightfoot books that blend elements of the mystery with some drawn from true crime. For the story Nancy wanted to tell in a stand-alone novel set in Kansas with its big skies, vast prairies and huge weather events, she needed to enlarge the form. Here are some methods she used to write THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS.
Multiple third person point of view
Unlike most mysteries and more like novels of suspense, we get this story not from the limited perspective of a single character speaking in first person but from the viewpoint of several characters, slightly removed from us in the third person perspective and presented by an effaced narrator. These characters include the following.
Abby Reynolds, the protagonist
Mitch Newquist, Abby’s high school boyfriend
Rex Shellenberger, Abby’s good friend and present-day sheriff
Catie Washington, a young woman dying of cancer who visits the grave of “the virgin,” a beautiful girl found dead in a blizzard seventeen years before the present
By presenting the story from the perspective of several characters, Nancy could show more of the story directly in fully developed scenes. She also avoided one of the inherent problems of detective fiction: keeping the solution of the crime from the reader while still playing fair. For instance, Rex knows all along what Abby and Mitch don’t know until late in the book: who the virgin really was. But Nancy was able to keep the information from the reader and still play fair.
Big cast of characters
In addition to Abby, Mitch, and Rex, in their thirties in present time, Nancy also shows us their parents and in so doing some of the principal citizens of Small Plains, Kansas.
The doctor, Abby’s father Dr. Quentin Reynolds, along with her mother Margie, who’s died by the present time of the novel
The judge, Mitch’s father, Tom Newquist, along with Mitch’s mother Nadine
The sheriff, retired in the present, Rex’s dad, Nathan Shellenberger, who runs a ranch along with Rex’s mom, Verna
Other important characters include Rex’s brother Patrick, Abby’s lover in the present day, and Mitch’s adopted brother Jeff.
Dynamic, fully realized characters
In most mystery fiction the detective stays the same, static, unaffected, unchanged by the crimes he witnesses and solves, in each book and from book to book in the series. Hercule Poirot, for instance, is the same odd little Belgian in CURTAIN as he was in THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES.
But, much more true to life and as often happens in literary fiction, the mysterious death of the girl who becomes known as the virgin of Small Plains changes the characters, especially Abby, Mitch, and Rex. In fact, her death is the defining event and turning points of their young lives.
Unlike much of detective fiction, we get to know lots about the principal characters of THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS, including how they think, feel, and live their lives. One of the pleasures I found in this novel, for instance, was Abby’s love of her pet birds, including the parrot that once belonged to Mitch. The expanded form of this novel gave Nancy the room and the time to show many of her characters fully.
Lots of Plot
Nancy needed a big book for the many complications, i. e. plot developments and subplots involving the many characters. A really cool benefit of the expanded plot was she also got lots of interesting and surprising places to hide the clues.
Expanded time frame
As Carolyn Wheat points out in HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION, mysteries focus on the time span that starts with the crime and moves to the detective’s discovery of who committed the crime. Of course, a crime typically has its roots in the past, but what the reader sees is the solution of the crime.
Nancy Pickard, however, expands the time frame in THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS and presents in full scenes not just the events of the present but also the events of seventeen years before.
Playing with plot
The choices Nancy made allowed her to play with some of the conventions of mystery plotting and thus surprise the reader.
For instance, in a mystery written in first person, the detective drives the plot at every critical point. But Nancy divided up the major plot points among her principal characters.
Abby gives us plot point 1, setting up the overall plot line of the book,
with her decision to discover the virgin’s identity.
Mitch takes the midpoint, setting the plot off in a new direction
halfway through the book, with his decision to remain in Small
Plains after the tornado.
Rex gives us plot point 2, setting up the final action of the book, by
providing the situation in which what really happened seventeen
years before can be revealed.
Catie brings the plot to resolution in a fresh, original way.
(Credit for basic info about plot points goes to Syd Field’s SCREENPLAY and to Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick’s THE WEEKEND NOVELIST WRITES A MYSTERY.)
For another instance, typically in a mystery we discover the first victim very early, if not on page one, then at least by the end of the first chapter. We often don’t find the second victim until midpoint. Because of Nancy’s manipulations of time, though, we discover the second victim before the first and both within the first twenty pages.
Big setting, big events
As I said early on, Nancy needed a bigger form than detective fiction usually provides to describe the Flint Hills region of Kansas. Unlike Robert B. Parker, who dropped in a few details here and there to show Spenser’s Boston, for example, she had to build a landscape less familiar to many readers than the back side of the moon.
Part of that world is the big weather events we get out here. Two blizzards seventeen years apart in this book are critical to its plot. (Check out the first few pages of the novel for a great description of what it’s like to drive in that blizzard.) In THE FIRE IN FICTION Donald Maass discusses how deftly Nancy uses several characters’ experience of the tornado, not just one, in the middle of the book as well.
Voice and style
One of the aspects I most admire about THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS is the artfulness with which Nancy wrote it. Take these sentences from the start of Chapter Eight. (I quote with the kind permission of the author Nancy Pickard.) We’re at Nadine Newquist’s funeral on January 23, shortly after the blizzard in which she died. And “The wind was frigid from its slide down the front face of Colorado, fast from its skid across the plains. It was a wind with a serrated edge that cut under the raised coat collars of the men and chapped the thighs of any woman in a dress.” Brrr! That’s the Kansas wind all right.
And just look at that writing. See how “slide” and “skid” move the description. Read the passage aloud and savor the alliteration in “front face.” Hear the wind in all the sibilants. Feel the cut of its “serrated edge.” Wow!
Had Nancy written THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS as a more conventional detective novel in first person, she would have been restricted to the much more colloquial style and voice of someone speaking.
In writing this big book set in Kansas, Nancy Pickard made less common choices, took chances, borrowed from both suspense and literary fiction, invented, and played. In doing all these things, she enlarged the form of the mystery novel.
THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS won the Agatha Award. Nancy Pickard has continued to expand the form of the mystery novel in THE SCENT OF RAIN AND LIGHTNING, nominated for an Agatha Award for best mystery novel of 2010.
NEXT TIME (on or around March 17, 2011): Jonathan Kellerman’s DECEPTION.
In the meantime, happy reading and writing, Juliet