At the highest level, this murder mystery follows one of the standard whodunit formulas. A woman (Glad) is murdered in a small Iowa town (Aldoburg) and there are many suspects, largely because there is no strong evidence against any particular person. A young man is arrested, but the evidence against him is so weak that it is clearly a case of a hapless small town cop feeling the need to do something. Few in the town really believe that the young man did it, so it is a case where the lack of evidence forces the heroine (Mara Gilgannon) to consider all possibilities.
There are two other major plot lines in the book. Aldoburg is currently in the throes of a major debate over a plan for a new Wal-Mart being built on the edge of town. There are those who believe that the new store will be an economic savior and there are others convinced that it will destroy the local businesses that have operated for generations. Glad and her domestic partner Zee operated the local radio station, and have been forcefully arguing against the new store. The arguments are passionate on both sides, with many long-term friendships at risk, so it certainly could provide the motivation for the murder. Vermillion has certainly done a great deal of research into the issues concerning Wal-Mart. The arguments over the consequences of a new Wal-Mart and their business practices could have been taken from local news stories in many areas of the country. At no time does she exceed the realistic bounds of argument on either side in order to embellish her story.
The second major theme is that of lesbian/gay personalities. Mara is a lesbian and her housemate (Vince) is a gay man. Glad and Zee are lesbian partners, a fact well known to the residents of Aldoburg. After Glad was killed, the murderer spray-painted "dyke" on the wall next to the body. This raises the possibility that the murder was a hate crime, and there are two young local men who recently beat up one of their gay classmates. Since the two beaters are the sons of prominent citizens, there is the potential for their fathers using their influence to protect them. The lesbian/gay theme recurs throughout the book. Mara's boss (Orchid) is also a lesbian and Mara's former partner moves in with Orchid. As she investigates the crime, Mara discovers a few other closet lesbian/gay people; one is a hot female cop that raises her sexual temperature. I found myself pondering something that I have never pondered before; "Will the girl get the girl?" It was also interesting and amusing to read the bits where a lesbian woman is sizing up another woman, noting her curves and rating her chances of getting to know her better. There is some lesbian/gay sex, but nothing one would rate as juicy.
With one exception, the strong focus on lesbian/gay themes did not distract me from the trail leading to the killer(s). That exception was the seeming need of the author to describe the attire of all individuals in more detail than was necessary. The colors of the clothes always seem to be mentioned, even when it had no bearing on the story. For example, Mara visits Zee and we read ". . . and her yellow T-shirt was wrinkled." Since there is no further reference to the shirt, knowing the color was unnecessary. Even though Mara's lesbian lifestyle has led to some estrangement with her parents, that is wisely kept very low key.
The climactic identification of the killer and the aftermath are well done. I certainly did not suspect the culprit and there are additional complicating factors due to some of the features of small town life. As a small town Iowa boy, I appreciated and understood many of the themes of Aldoburg life. My favorite small town situation in the entire book is when the heroine surreptitiously follows one of her prime suspects onto the darkened football practice field, hoping to witness a payoff. When she is breathless with excitement and exertion, she hears a steady stream and notes that there are "no bucolic creeks in the vicinity." Every man who grew up in a small town can relate to that situation. The murder aspects of the book kept my interest, and the story moves along with no large sections of unnecessary filler.