Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Desert Moon Mystery

Once again I find myself in debt to John over at Pretty Sinister Books.  This time it's not just for bringing my latest vintage mystery read, The Desert Moon Mystery by Kay Cleaver Strahan, to my attention via his fabulous blog (check it out if you haven't already!), but also for the very generous loan of his copy.  I have met some really fine folks out here in the blogging world...and John is one of the finest.  I have long wanted to read a book by Strahan (a couple of her titles have been on the TBF/O--To Be Found/Owned--list for eons) and I had not yet managed to track down one of her novels for my very own--borrowing  from a good friend is the next best thing.

The scene of the crime in Strahan's novel is the Desert Moon Ranch--home to the wealthy Sam Stanley, his housekeeper Mary Magin, his adopted son and daughter, John and Martha, Martha's care-giver Mrs. Ricker, and hangers-on Chadwick Caufield and Hubert Hand.  Sam just seems to collect folks for his ranch like some people take in stray cats.  The story is told by Mary Magin and the action begins when the twin daughters of Sam's ex-wife show up looking for a place of "rest and relaxation."  

Except they're not really getting any of that....Mrs. Magin notices that the girls, Danielle and Gabrielle, are constantly busy searching everything from the attic to the outlying buildings.  They're certainly up to something, but what?  Before Mrs. Magin can discover what the object of this scavenger hunt is, Gabrielle is found strangled on the attic steps and this first shocking death is followed by the suicide of Chad Caufield.  Caufield believed himself in love with Gabrielle--a vain, mean-spirited girl who wouldn't even give him the time of day.  Has he killed himself out of desperation because the girl he loves is dead...or out of remorse because he killed her after being rejected one too many times?

Sam Stanley firmly believes Caulfield to be innocent and is determined to get to the bottom of things. Mrs. Magin is also taking notes and keeping an eye on everyone.  It doesn't help that the girls' father, a ne'er do well who has just been released from prison shows up.  Stanley gathers everyone together for a session of coerced confessions, but before that little task can be completed Martha is dead.  Grief-stricken and out of options, he decides to hire Lynn MacDonald, a private detective of great repute, who also happens to be a woman.  There will be one more death and a great many clues to be gathered before Miss MacDonald--with the help of Mrs. Magin--can track down the culprit.

As John mentions in his review, this mystery uses one of moth-eaten tricks of detective fiction, but the story is so well-told and has enough interesting features that the modern reader really doesn't mind.  It's actually kind of nice to read one of the early instances of the trick.  Lynn MacDonald is a nice take on the female Holmes, keeping facts and observations to herself until Mary can prove to her that she has quite the keen eye for observation herself.  The two make a very good team at the end.

It was also quite interesting to read a vintage mystery with a very country house set-up that takes place in a very western atmosphere.  There's a down-home feel to the story that runs under the build-up of suspense and confusion--made the most real to us through Mary's difficulties in arranging what she knows and what she's heard from various characters.  Overall a very comfortable and entertaining book--three and a half stars.


TracyK said...

Hi, great review. I purchased a copy of this book based on John's review, and look forward to reading it sometime in the next few months.

Anonymous said...

Sounds great Bev - a new author for me and the Western atmosphere sounds great too. Getting a copy is going to be hard, isn;t it? Hmmm...

Ryan said...

Sounds like a lot of fun, I'm just trying to figure out if I want to read any other vintage mysteries set in the west. I'm reading Lost Ecstasy by Mary Roberts Rinehart, with a western setting, and so far, while I don't hate it, it's not my favorite.

Bev Hankins said...

Ryan: The western setting isn't ultra-important to the story. It actually has a country-house feel to it because you have a closed set of suspects at the ranch--they're not stranded there but they're made to feel like they can't leave before the culprit is found or they'll be considered guilty themselves.