There’s a moment toward the end of Dusty Rainbolt’s Death Under the Crescent Moon that is worth the price of admission all by its lonesome. In that instant, Rainbolt takes the clichés of the haunted hotel mystery and neatly dumps them on their head. It’s masterfully done, and, without spoiling it, it manages the rare trick of being shocking at the moment while being completely logical in hindsight.
The book follows the travails of the widowed Eva Dupree, former silent film star and now cancer patient. Diagnosed with a malignancy in her kidney, she arrives at the Baker Hospital in rural Arkansas in hopes of the miraculous cure offered by the hospital’s proprietor, the oddly purple clad Norman Baker. But all is not as it seems in the hospital: ghosts stalk the hallways. Patients disappear. The guards are armed with Tommy guns, and there are secret passages in the walls. And Eva, ably assisted by her servant Rose, her cat Ivan, and a bottle of Haig & Haig whisky, is caught in the middle of it all.
If there’s a flaw to the book, it’s that Rainbolt is too faithful to the source material. The Baker exists, it really was a girls’ school before it became a hospital, and it really is supposed to be haunted. And Rainbolt tries to get all of that in there – the spirit of the suicidal girl who had an affair with her teacher, the ghost of a hanged man reported in one of the rooms – even when they don’t serve the core plot of the novel. As interesting and atmospheric as they are, they don’t pay off dramatically as well as they might, and thus leave the reader hanging. Similarly, some of the real-world Baker’s quirks would seem to be tailor-made for more ominous explanations than “that’s what he did in real life” – the omnipresent purple and the odd six-sided desk, to name two – in a Tim Powers-ish way, but the author stays faithful to the source material.
But dangling spooky plot threads aside, Death Under The Crescent Moon is a compelling, enjoyable read. Eva’s a fun heroine to spend time with, engaging and active despite her illness, and many of the other residents of the hospital are strongly drawn and intriguing. And of course there’s Ivan the cat, the real star of the book. Rainbolt’s best known for her work in writing cat books, and here she makes Ivan a key character without making him precious or annoying. At once an emotional link to Eva’s late husband and a key plot element, he sits at the core of the book and purrs, loudly.
(Yard Dog Just Cause, 2013)