Friday, February 1, 2013

FFB: The Desert Moon Mystery - Kay Cleaver Strahan

This was a real discovery and I have to thank Diane Plumley over at the 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.

For a first mystery novel The Desert Moon Mystery is a breathtaking accomplishment.  Strahan manages to create a puzzling mystery with multiple deaths in which any one of the five main characters could be the killer. Including Mary herself. There is a point when one of the strangest characters Mrs. Ricker (who has quite a few secrets of her own) tells an outrageous story of something she witnessed and it's difficult to tell whether she's telling the truth. Later it seems that Sam Stanley may have concocted an elaborate plan to mislead and cover up what happened on the ranch. Overall, the book is impressive on so many levels.

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.

15 comments:

  1. I have Deathtraps and October House and The Hobgoblin Murder too in jackets, but haven't read one yet. I'll have to get this one. Not sure about Footprints from your comment!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have Deathtraps and Footprints. I didn't like Hobgoblin..., the first Strahan I read. Thought I'd never read her again until I came across Diane's glowing review of this one. Last year TomCat reviewed Footprints which you can read here. Not very favorable primarily because of its ending. I'm going ahead in reading Deathtraps this month. I was really taken with her debut - genuine fair play detection, superbly drawn characters, unusual setting, rich imaginative prose. Well worth reprinting, I'd say.

      Delete
    2. Of course, just when Death Traps was nearing the top of my TBR-pile, you will probably beat me to the review... again. ;)

      Anyway, I rather liked Footprints and it’s depiction of family life on a ranch in the early 1900s, but the absence of a solution, or half of it, can kill any promising detective story. Heck, even the name of the murderer was more of a suggestion than a statement of fact. It's actually surprising that the book won a prize!

      Fascination story, it must be said, but a lousy mystery.

      Delete
  2. John, I enjoyed the samples of Strahan's imaginative writing. Her "dense and rich" narrative suggests humour as well and I hope I am right there. Is this book set against a western backdrop? Not least because of the ranch setting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's 1920s Nevada. It's not a western in the sense of a cinematic western. Cowboys in Stetsons and chaps, savage Indians, gunfights, saloons, etc., are nowhere in sight. The dealings of the ranch are of a business nature and you get an idea of what a real cowboy is about and what cattlemen think of the dairy industry which is pretty funny as described by Strahan though her character of Mary.

      Delete
    2. John, my mistake. I overlooked the period upfront. Thanks for the explanation. I was looking up Strahan's books online and found only PEGGY-MARY (1915) at Archive. I read the first few lines and I could see that she was a gifted writer.

      Delete
  3. Sounds great John, especially the female - well done on the literary sleuthing. So, to make us even more envious, what would a copy set us mere mortals back?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PS Supposed to read 'female detective' ...

      Delete
    2. A handful of copies are available on-line. I found one for as little as $3. No paperback edition exists, but there is a hardcover reprint edition (Grosset & Dunlap) that should be cheaper than the original Crime Club. Remarkably, some dealers don't know of the value of the book as the first Crime Club and you can get a 1st (without the extremely rare DJ) for under $10 from one bookseller.

      Delete
  4. I should add that my copy is always available for loan to a select few. Just drop me an email with a mailing address and I will explain how it all works.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ah, John, you've beaten me again. Strahan has been on the long TBR list forever, but I've never gotten my hands on one. This one does sound particularly good. I'm especially intrigued by the female detective. Terrific review, as always.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I stopped by (via your comment at My Reader's Block) to check out your vintage mystery reading in January. This post grabbed me due to the skull on the cover of the book. I collect mysteries with skull covers (on a very small scale). Usually vintage paperbacks. On the strength of your review, I went ahead and bought a copy with a nice cover but published later (Caxton House, 1939). Thanks for this excellent review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Tracy, for your first comment here at PSB. I "run into" you at other mystery blogs when I'm commenting. Thanks also for becoming Follower #73 of this odd little corner in cyperspace. Hope you enjoy DESERT MOON MYSTERY when you get your copy. I wish I had a way of earning a kickback from the used book dealers each time I manage to tempt someone to buy a copy of a book I reviewed. It would make me a nice second income!

      Delete
    2. You'd get a tidy sum from the ones you've tempted me with alone! :-)

      Delete
  7. The Southwestern ranch setting, rich descriptive writing and the fact that it's a Golden Age mystery all make this one sound quite tempting. Bang up review, John! Special thanks for sharing the info re: the book's availability in affordable copies online.

    ReplyDelete