It should have been an epic. A mind blowing cosmic revelation. A classic never read. Or at least a good mystery. Not even close. And yet, I began it, continued, and low and behold, finished the entire 320 pages. I should have been ecstatic. Thrilled. At a minimum, relieved. After all, it had been a couple of months since I was able to get through more than one chapter; a full book was a distant memory. However, the only thought I had as I plopped the covers together and slapped the old 1937 reprint down on the bed, was, what the hell did I read that for? The Desert Lake Mystery by Kay Cleaver Strahan was convoluted, mystifying in all the wrong ways, confusing, and dull. The characters kept changing on me—or there were so many and so thinly drawn I couldn’t keep track. I believe the trouble started when the author left out chunks of dialog and background through the offbeat voice of the book, an older law enforcer who doesn’t have much crime to enforce. The opening lines should have warned me, given me dark forebodings. Because that’s the first line—“I had dark forbodings. I had evil premonitions.” Essentially the plot revolves
around a powerful man, within his little pond, Adam Oakman; his daughter he hadn’t seen since a baby; his adopted son; a crippled lad whose sweet on Oakman’s daughter; the crippled man’s beautiful sister; Adam’s sister in law, or cousin, some kind of relation; and her fat, fastidious son. Naturally there are other people thrown in for red herrings—an old judge, his son, Indians, a couple of deputies, and Bridget O’Dell who essentially solves the murders. The sheriff narrates, but Bridget
O’Dell, with the off stage help of the female detective, Lynn Macdonald, comes up with the solution. Strahan had a couple of titles under her belt when she wrote Desert Lake Mystery. And they all ‘featured’ female detective Lynn Macdonald. I used quotation marks because the detective barely shows up in most of Strahan’s stories. He first book, The Desert Moon Mystery, which I put on my Best 100 Mysteries of All Time list, Lynn Macdonald spends a decent amount of time in the story. By the time Desert Lake was published, the detective is only spoken of, never seen, given no dialog, and she doesn’t even proclaim the dénouement. I’m not sure why Strahan bothered to add her to the story. It may seem odd that one book of Strahan’s I found to be excellent, and this one I dismiss as drivel. I think it’s odd too. I read three other books of hers, and all were much better than this. I don’t believe my reading dry spell affected my reaction, I think Strahan wrote a terrible book.
The first chapter did deliver some smiles. “What rhymes with vagabond” asks the fastidious nephew, Reggie . “Drag a pond” replies Jeff, the narrator. Jeff continues describing Reggie– “there was always something about the way those glasses pinched close together on his fat little nose that reminded me of the double oo in cootie.” and– “if Reggie undertook to eat a bunch of grapes he’d hire somebody to spit the seeds out for him.”
Strahan wrote a ‘no one can leave the island,’ ’snow bound estate,’ ’flood filled creaking mansion,”, type of book here, but the place is so uninteresting to the reader, the characters could be stranded anywhere. Memoloose Camp, surrounded by the stark blinding heat of the desert, and on the edge of a shallow lake holds no mystique or allure. The quirky characters are no help, and the crime, involving the shooting of a brother by his sister, with a disappearing corpse, meanders listlessly along until the big ‘surprise’ conclusion. As I’m sure no one will ever peruse the pages of this book, I will disclose the pertinent points.
Adam Oakland’s daughter is an impostor, the person shot, wasn’t shot the first time, but was the second, by the impostor whom the victim was in love with. Another body discovered turns out was in cahoots with the impostor, and that man impersonated his father, the judge, who had already been killed. Know why it’s supposed to be such a shocker? The impostor who killed all these people herself dies three quarters of the way through the book, to throw us off the logical progression of the story, if there had been one. She accidentally dies while riding a horse around a dangerous curve on the mountain, and was assumed to be another murder victim. Did the conclusion make any sense to you? I didn’t think so.
And that, in an acrid tasteless nutshell, is the book that broke my dry spell. There is no explaining the human brain. After Desert Lake, I almost finished a Perry Mason—almost, again. Ugh. There is light, however, at the end of the bookcase. I purchased a brand new trade paperback. Paid $15.00, for the privilege—unheard of for me,
someone who became accustomed to advance reading copies, and free books from publishers. I never ever buy trade—because the price is outrageous for what essentially is a mass-market paperback all dressed up. The title is the much praised and nominated first novel Learning To Swim by Sara J. Henry. It’s engrossing, touching and I’m intrigued enough to definitely finish it. I think.
To read my review of The Desert Moon Mystery–click here.