Nancy Pickard depicts resourceful, independent female protagonists in her mysteries, emphasizing their intelligence, bravery, and competence. Her characters and plots represent many of the qualities found in innovative mysteries featuring female sleuths and detectives written by female authors including Margaret Maron and Sue Grafton in the 1980’s. Pickard’s sleuths exemplified similar traits of strength, resilience, and perseverance. Creating appealing narrators, she sought to provide readers with entertainment as well as to offer protagonists with whom they could identify.
Although the structures of Pickard’s series varied, her writing style exhibited constants, especially strong voice, effective use of setting, and intricate layers of seemingly unrelated characters and events to hide clues and enable plot twists revealing connections. Her characterizations were strengthened with humor, often dark. Although criticisms of her writing have noted that her narratives often include too much explanation and that some of her character development is implausible or flat, many reviewers have praised Pickard’s ingenious plots and pacing.
Pickard focuses on the theme of family in most of her mysteries. Characters feel compelled to support their relatives emotionally despite deceptions and other wrongdoings inflicted on them. Family is equated with other themes, particularly power and prestige. The absence of strong family ties can be detrimental to characters who lack supporters to defend and protect them. Without an intact family structure, characters struggle against outsiders’ biases, often negative or incorrect, which shape public opinion. Varying forms of family, offered by lovers and friends, bolster characters. Family can paradoxically provide characters with safety or weaken them. The theme of disintegration, represented by people falling apart financially or emotionally, intensifies the somber tones of such Pickard novels as Marriage Is Murder (1987).
Social issues are important aspects of Pickard’s mysteries, often enhancing characterizations and strengthening plots. Pickard became aware of such concerns, particularly mental health, because her grandmother died in a state mental hospital, similar to Jenny’s mother dying in a private facility. Coming of age during the 1960’s, she witnessed social movements demanding improvements. Her friends participated in assisting abused spouses and indigent people, increasing Pickard’s knowledge of how bureaucracy and politics affect services, which provided her details to improve the authenticity of her characters’ conflicts. Altruism is present as some characters strive to help people, despite their flaws, reinforcing character development within her novels and throughout her series.
Pickard’s settings help reflect her characters’ moods and establish tones to alert readers to potentially dangerous situations and people capable of inflicting pain and anguish. Her small communities, in New England and the Midwest, both nurture and stifle characters. The seemingly pleasant ocean community of Port Frederick deceivingly contains vengeful residents. The prairie’s bleak territory intensifies characters’ fears and sense of isolation. Fog rolls across scenes and in people’s minds to convey sinister elements and distortion. Twilight in her novels blinds and confuses people. Snow proves deadly and conceals crimes. Storms and fires obliterate evidence necessary to...
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