Bookshop Blog for including it in her eccentric Best 100 Mysteries List. Apart from The Desert Moon Mystery (1928) having the distinction of being the very first title published in Doubleday & Doran's Crime Club series I knew nothing about it. Turns out not only is it a great book (one of the best American mysteries published in the 1920s I would say) it also happens to have one of the earliest legitimate female private eyes in the genre. And it seems nobody has written a thing about her.
Lynn MacDonald belongs to the Holmesian school of inductive detectives but she's unique among private eyes in that she seeks out her cases. She approaches her clients by a letter of invitation and asks for a whopping $10,000 if she is successful. Not a bad way to make a living in the 1920s. Her first case takes her to a ranch outside of Reno, Nevada where the mysterious death of Gabrielle Canneziano and the suicide of Chad Caufield, a normally cheerful and jocular young man who served as a hired hand, has left owner Sam Stanley, his cook Mary Magin, and the rest of the guests on edge.
The Desert Moon Mystery really is a novel first and foremost; the detective story aspect only follows. Mary serves as narrator and I was impressed with Strahan's witty way of weaving into the story cooking and kitchen metaphors. A dress is described as "two shades darker than cream of tomato soup", rain falls in "drops as big as butter cookies", an egg beater image is used to convey confusion and Mary wisely notes that "love can't be measured in a pint cup." This is only a sampling of Strahan's imaginative writing. All of the characters have distinctive voices, cadences, word choices. A rare skill among novice writers and even among the most experienced of contemporary writers these days. Speaking of word choices, the entire narrative is dense and rich and the reader truly needs to pay attention to every single word. Nothing is wasted here. Nothing is ornamental or gratuitous. Every single sentence and word is intrinsic to the story. This is also something I find to be unusual in Golden Age detective novels.
Mary acts as something of a Rinehart spinster amateur sleuth for much of the book. Accidentally stumbling upon blatant clues Mary thinks aloud in the usual HIBK heroine manner. A sophisticated reader will be able to assemble those clues into a reasonable solution long before Mary or even Lynn MacDonald for the plot hinges on a creaky old detective story cliche.
Yet even with an obvious culprit and a gimmick used repeatedly in mystery novels of this era the book is a real delight. The ranch setting, the numerous puzzles, the characters -- especially the entrance of Lynn MacDonald -- and her subsequent teaming up with Mary of whom she is a little more than wary, all add up to a rewarding story. MacDonald's entrance off the only train in town is like something out of a movie. Mary is so stunned by this beautiful mysterious woman that she abandons her usual kitchen metaphors and turns instead to weather and nature imagery to describe the detective. "She looked like September morning, in our mountains -- that was the zip and the zest of her..." Her wild, orangish hair is described as trying to break free and "go floating off, on its own, to make maybe a tiny sunset cloud." MacDonald is quite a force of nature according to Mary.
MacDonald has several rules that she lays out for the residents of the Desert Moon ranch. She does not want them to discuss the case freely; she only wants her questions answered directly with little embellishment. Her methods are inscrutable. She suspects everyone. She rarely shares information until Mary proves to be her match in the detective skills department. They join forces and make a formidable team. Watching the women battle it out is rather fun.
There have been other reviews of Strahan's later works in which it appears that she cheats the reader. The Hobgoblin Murder has an unfair revelation in the final pages and Footprints has a solution that is truly baffling. So baffling that Strahan received numerous letters demanding she prove how the murderer actually did the deed. Something she never fully explained in the book and never explained to her querying fans. Nevertheless, her debut is some piece of work. If you only read one book by Kay Cleaver Strahan I suggest you read her very first and leave it at that.
Lynn MacDonald now has her own page at the Thrilling Detective website after I sent an email to Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks, Kevin, for including this early pioneer among the American private eye dames.