My ideal mystery features a strong female character who has flaws but isn't jaded or hard; a challenging and realistic puzzle that sends our heroine on a transformative journey; a story that tackles difficult issues, and a setting so vivid it becomes a character. Julie Weston's Moonshadows delivers all that and more.
The story opens in winter with a solitary man in the snow. No idea of time or place. Just the man, the burden he carries, and the elements vividly brought alive:
Rosy sank to his knees, rolled his burden out of his arms. A crust blanketing the snow cracked and broke. The stalking wind threw solid pellets against his face, across his shoulders. No time. No shovel.
He groaned and leaned back. Slow down. Time made no difference now.
Eventually, sweating with effort, his burden buried, Rosy staggers through the blizzard toward warmth and safety:
Hillocks and humps of snow where the struggle began and ended remained. Half a dozen magpies poked and pecked like ghouls fighting over gristle. ... The birds flew off, leaving scattered bloody patches, pinking and blacking the snow. With the coming of nightfall, winter would erase the fall of man, the craving, crying need of man. Rosy kicked the snow in a frenzy, hatred still simmering. Out of breath, he stopped and forced his legs to step and then step again.
A bottle of hooch and the devil called from Last Chance Ranch.
Into this tumult comes Nellie Burns, petite and a mite naive, but smart and determined. At 25, she is already an old maid in the eyes of her friends back in Chicago. Newly arrived in the wild Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho in the 1920s, Nellie is on a mission to make a name for herself as a landscape photographer. Like so many before her, she has headed west in search of fame and fortune—only instead of gold or land, Nellie seeks light and shadow.
That quest takes her to the small town of Ketchum and Rosy, the grizzled former miner whom Nellie's new landlady recommends as a driver into the wintry landscape to find the perfect place for Nellie to capture her vision of moonlight on snow. Rosy, with his face "split down the middle" and one eye blinded by a blasting cap in the mine, and his brown bottle of "hooch" on the seat next to him, seems like a risky chauffeur, but he is all there is, and Nellie is determined to capture the photos she can see in her mind.
Her search takes Nellie to an abandoned house where she finds a dead man and a live dog (Moonshine, who becomes her companion), and from there into a mystery that no one in the small town wants to talk about, yet everyone is all too aware of. In her quietly stubborn search for answers, Nellie will stand up to bullies and prejudice, will meet a Chinese herbal doctor and his menacing, opium-selling wife, and tangle with the local sheriff, a Basque man of few words and powerful secrets. She will nearly be caught in an explosion and beaten up, and will also find friends, a landscape that mesmerizes her, photographs that may very well make her name, and a place to call home.
Moonshadows begins in a rush with that "stalking wind" and never lets up. This beautifully-told story will hook readers and keep them guessing until the end, which, in the tradition of all good writing, hints at a fascinating new chapter to come.
I can't wait to read Weston's next Nellie Burns and Moonshine mystery.
Julie Weston grew up in Idaho and practiced law for many years in Seattle, Washington. Her prose has been published in IDAHO Magazine, The Threepenny Review, River Styx, and Rocky Mountain Game & Fish, among other places. Her book The Good Times Are All Gone Now: Life, Death and Rebirth in an Idaho Mining Town (Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2009) received an honorable mention in the 2009 Idaho Book Awards. Both an essay and a short story were nominated for Pushcart Awards. She and her husband, Gerry Morrison, now live in Central Idaho where they ski, write, photograph, and enjoy the outdoors. Visit her website.
Check out our interview with the author of Moonshadows.
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