Christie McNair is raped by her cousin Peter Keith and is left pregnant. Wully McLaughlin, her boyfriend before the war, convinces her to marry him and insists that the child is his, taking the blame on himself for the child being conceived out of wedlock. Peter disappears and is missing for a number of years, driving his mother to the brink of insanity — he was always her golden child. The McLaughlins are threatened when Peter is spotted nearby. Wully would kill him but finds him already near death in a livery stable. He would as soon leave him there, but Christie insists that would be wrong and that they must take him — alive, dying, or dead — to his mother.
Twins Gabriella and Daniella Canneziano appear rather inexplicably at the Desert Moon, an isolated ranch in the Nevada highlands. They are the guests of their uncle, the Desert Moon’s owner Sam Stanley, although they’re not really related — they’re the children from the second marriage of Sam’s ex-wife. He hasn’t seen them since they were very young and doesn’t know why they’re here now, except that their mother has been dead for a decade and their father has recently been sent to prison. Sam’s not the type to pry, though. Also at the ranch are Mary, who’s been the cook for 25 years; Chad and Hubert, who are nebulously employed charity cases; and Mrs. Ricker. Mrs. Ricker cares for Martha, who’s severely retarded. Martha and John are Sam’s adopted, adult children.
John and Danny very quickly fall in love and are engaged to be married. Mary is suspicious of the Cannezianos and spies on them, discovering that they are searching the ranch for something, something that will get them revenge on someone. Chad and Hubert both fall for Gaby. Mary overhears Mrs. Ricker threaten to kill both Hubert and Gaby if he doesn’t stop perusing her. Martha, who’s been known to be violent at times, has a crush on Chad and is intensely jealous of Gaby.
Two months into their stay, Gaby is murdered on the attic stairs and Chad shoots himself immediately after she’s discovered. Not long after, Martha dies of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. Crime analyst Lynn MacDonald is called in to find the murderer.
This is very much in the Rinehart had-I-but-known school of mystery, much more so than the other Strahan books I’ve read. There are two components to the solution, both of which I identified and solved before the reveal, namely who are Martha’s biological parents and which of the Canneziano twins is which. Everything else hinges on that.
Maris’s husband Martin abandons her and takes their daughter, Felicia. She spends years trying to find them, but they’ve vanished. At last she’s informed that he’s dead. She has a breakdown. In the hospital, she makes the acquaintance of Dwight Alden. They are soon married. Alden is a cotton mill owner in a small southern town. The mills are notorious for their flagrant child labor abuses. One young girl is caught in the machinery and has her arm mangled. It’s Felicia — Martin, now Willis, is still alive and has sold her to the mill for liquor money. Maris takes Felicia and flees to her hometown. She and Martin were legally divorced and that’s good enough for Dwight, but Maris won’t stay in his house while Martin is still alive, which isn’t long — he’d already drank himself half to death and he wasn’t slowing down.
Inscription: signed “Florence M. Lessig” on the front flyleaf. She wrote it out in pencil first then went over it in pen.