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A weird tale of depravity and political intrigue


By Steve Thayer

Putnam, $24.95, 288 pp

Reviewed by JEAN HELLER

Steve Thayer, a master of weird thrillers (The Weatherman, for example), returns with The Wheat Field, another thriller that would qualify as weird even if Thayer had omitted the hints throughout that the narrator is also the brutal killer whose identification and capture are at the heart of the matter.

The year is 1960, and Deputy Pliny Pennington, a former Army sniper, is called to a strange crop circle in a wheat field where a farmer has discovered two bodies. They are identified as Maggie and Michael Butler, the most popular couple in Kickapoo Falls, Wis., an idyllic vacation spot for the rich and famous from Chicago. A shotgun blast to the face has obliterated Maggie's features and her life, and another to Michael's groin caused him to bleed to death.

Sheriff Fats wants Pennington to close the case as a murder-suicide _ Maggie fatally wounded her husband then turned the shotgun on herself. But Pennington is certain that isn't what happened.

The gruesome discovery is a blow to Pennington, who had loved Maggie most of his adult life. That fact is an open secret in Kickapoo Falls, so some suspect early that Pennington might have murdered the woman he could never have and her husband, who was the reason he could never have her. And Pennington keeps hinting that the suspicions are correct, that he is the killer, even as he seems to conduct an honest and thorough search for someone else.

In one of the story's gripping threads, the reader can never be certain that Pennington isn't guilty, since he recounts a number of instances when he sneaked up on couples in the dark and watched them having sex. A voyeur can't be all that innocent.

As Pennington continues to probe for facts, it quickly becomes clear that somebody, perhaps a lot of people, don't want him getting to the bottom of things. A "detective" from Texas named Dickerson shows up on the force, hired by Sheriff Fats for no apparent reason other than to put together a case against Pennington.

As the deputy's suspicions zero in on an exclusive place called the Kickapoo Gunn Club and one of its members, U.S. Senate candidate Walter Sprague, Pennington begins to receive provocative phone calls from Sprague's missing wife, Caren. Although Pennington believes Caren is hidden somewhere near Cape Cod, she seems to know what is going to happen in Kickapoo Falls before events fall into place.

The story evolves into a tale of depravity and political intrigue that falls just to the okay side of unbelievable. The down side is that Pennington's hints that he killed Maggie Butler could lead the reader to figure out the mystery before Thayer intended for that to happen.

The Wheat Field is beautifully written; the sense of place among the Wisconsin Dells is well-drawn and altogether appealing. And at the end, I found this a fascinating story, well worth the time and money.

Jean Heller is the author of the mystery-thrillers, Handyman and Maximum Impact (Forge).