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