Big Wheat: A Tale of Bindlestiffs and Blood Big Wheat
A Tale of Bindlestiffs and Blood

Hardcover: 250 pages
Poisoned Pen Press
January 1, 2011
ISBN-10: 1590588207
ISBN-13: 978-1590588208
Big Wheat errata
winner, 2012 Minnesota Book Award for Best Genre Fiction

The summer of 1919 is over, and on the high prairie, an army of men, women, and machines moves across the land, bringing in the wheat harvest. "Bull threshers," steam engineers, bindlestiffs, cooks, and camp followers join the tide. Prosperous farmers proudly proclaim, "Rain follows the plow," meaning that the bounty of the land will never be exhausted. Big Wheat is king, as people gleefully embrace the gospels of progress and greed.

But something evil is also moving across the land. A serial killer who calls himself the Windmill Man believes he has a holy calling to water the newly plucked earth with blood. For him, the mobile harvest is a target-rich environment, an endless supply of ready victims. He has been killing for many years now and has no plans to retire. Who could stop him? Nobody even knows he exists.

A young man named Charlie Krueger also follows the harvest. Jilted by his childhood sweetheart and estranged from his drunkard father, he hopes to find a new life as a steam engineer. But in a newly harvested field in the nearly black Dakota night, he comes upon a strange man digging a grave. And in that moment, Charlie becomes the only person who has seen the face of the killer and the only one who can stop him. If he lives long enough. Unknown to him, the sheriff from back home is hunting him for the murder of the Windmill Man's last victim. And the Windmill Man himself has also learned his name and is stalking him.

Read an Excerpt

It didn't have to be as deep as a real grave, only deep enough so that the coyotes or stray dogs couldn't dig the body up, and the spring plows would glide harmlessly over it. Waist high was good enough, two or three hour's work. He threw the dirt all to one side of the hole, away from the mountain of straw from the day's threshing operation. The straw pile screened him from the farm buildings a quarter mile away and gave him a sense of security and privacy.

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The Pioneer Press say...

"Richard Thompson's Big Wheat is one of the first Minnesota mysteries to be published in 2011, and it gets us off to a great start.

Thompson, who spent 20 years as senior building inspector and design engineer for the city of St. Paul, earned good reviews for his 2008 debut mystery "Fiddle Game," followed by "Frag Box" in 2010. Both featured St. Paul bail bondsman Herman Jackson, who had to leave his former identity behind in Detroit because of some shady dealings.

"Big Wheat" is Thompson's first stand-alone historical mystery, and it is deeper and richer than the more jaunty Jackson books.

The story is set during the summer of 1919, when the country is still recovering from the effects of World War I. There is a "bubble" on wheat prices and farmers on the plains are planting as much wheat as possible, ignoring old ways of caring for the soil. In their zeal to get more profits, the farmers are confident the rains will continue to come. They use new, steam-driven equipment that digs deeper into the soil, stripping the top layer. They don't realize they are setting the stage for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

On one such farm lives teenager Charlie Krueger, who's a magnet for his father's cruel beatings until one day Charlie has had enough. He stabs his dad in the hand and leaves the farm. On the foggy day he departs, he encounters a man digging a grave but they do not exchange words.

That mysterious character is the Windmill Man, a psychopath and serial killer. Revealing this is not a spoiler; much of the plot hinges on Windmill Man's determination to find and kill Charlie, who he believes saw his face when he was burying the body of the girl Charlie loved. When the girl's body is unearthed, the corrupt local sheriff and her family believe Charlie killed her. Now, Charlie is in danger from two sides.

As Charlie wanders the country with the other "bindlestiffs" (rootless men who follow the harvest), he meets a sort of roaming commune headed by a kind man who makes the young man part of his unofficial family. And when Charlie needs help in the dramatic conclusion, they are there for him.

Thompson, who has a degree in civil engineering, writes lovingly of Charlie's abilities with the newfangled machines that are replacing horses and changing the face of farming. He actually makes you care about the internal workings of these steam-driven monsters, even if you don't know a thresher from a tractor.

Meanwhile, the Windmill Man keeps searching for Charlie while killing people because he thinks the soil needs blood sacrifices to atone for what the farmers are doing to the land.

Thompson adds nuance to the story by making Windmill Man right in his assessment, but wrong in his twisted revenge: "Farmers with a whole section of land could make a profit of eighteen thousand dollars for a single crop, at a time when an ordinary laborer didn't see a thousand dollars a year. It was obscene. But he couldn't make the government pay in blood so he had to settle for somebody else. ... Young women are the best. ..."

"Big Wheat" will keep you reading. It offers a plot that picks up speed as it goes along; it foreshadows the coming of the Great Depression and gives an authentic sense of rural life in the early 20th century. It profiles one very bad man ... and several good men that give this story a rich sense of human decency."

Mary Ann Grossman, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Jan. 5, 2011
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