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.
The Quilters are a proud family that stretches back to before the Revolution. The present line are prominent ranchers in Oregon that, in the depression of the 1890s, had fallen onto hard times. No expense had been spared on aspiring playwright Chris, the eldest son. After going to the best schools in the East and traveling Europe, all that he’d accomplished was marrying a gold digger much disappointed to find that the mine was tapped out. Chris and Irene returned to Q2 Ranch to find it mortgaged and mortgaged and mortgaged again. Though all the Quilters lived there, from Grandfather to twelve year old Lucy, the ranch strictly speaking belonged to Chris. Irene as soon would have had it sold and let the others shift for themselves.
One night in 1900, Chris’s father was shot to death. It was in the night. All the family had been locked in their rooms. A rope from the bedpost went out the window and to the ground, but an early snow had fallen: the rope was dusted in it and there were no footprints anywhere on the ground around the house. An investigation was made and inquest held, but in the end, no explanation was ever found.
Almost thirty years later, Neal has come to believe that he killed his father, and in the shock of the act, forgot about it. It’s driving him mad. Elder sister Judy and Joe, the long-time family doctor, contact crime analyst Lynn MacDonald to solve the riddle. Of course, the case is long cold, most of the witnesses dead, so much has changed. Judy does, however, have a pack of letters sent to her by Lucy and Neal detailing the events of the house just before and just after the event. From these alone MacDonald must find the trail.
Almost fifty years ago, a young woman eloped with a man that her father considered to be far below her station. He disowned her, and suspicious of his other daughters’ complicity, put his vast fortune in trust. Not a penny was to be turned over until after the death of his eldest daughter, Prudence — a woman as hardhearted and tyrannical as himself. His three remaining children, now elderly, lead an isolated, joyless life filled with fear and anger.
One night, the granddaughter of the estranged eloper appears at the door seeking shelter. It comes to be known that she is ill and in danger of losing her sight if she does not get an operation, and has come in search of funding. She brings with her a four-year-old child, whose presence is probably the only reason she was not turned away at once. All the same, it is obvious that she will get no money until after Prudence dies.
Prudence is found dead six weeks later, stabbed in the neck with knitting shears. The house was locked tight. Everyone inside had a motive, but also an alibi. Lynn MacDonald, a Sherlock Holmes-like detective, is called to unravel the mystery.
The twist is something that has to be seen to be believed. Stop reading now if you have any intention of picking up this book.
Fair warning, I’m going to spoil the end…
The four-year-old is actually a fully grown circus midget.