“But you don’t beat the moneyman.”
Joe Lansdale’s Moon Lake is a tale of corruption, murder and the long-held secrets of a small East Texas town. The novel opens in 1968, with a father driving his 13-year-old year old son, Daniel to Moon Lake. Daniel’s mother, always a free spirit, ran off some months before, abandoning her husband and son. Now facing financial ruin, the father drives the son to the lake and then drives the car into the water. By some miracle, Daniel survives but his father does not. His father’s body is never found.
Temporarily, Daniel is taken in by the Candles family, also his rescuers, but Daniel, a white boy, can’t remain with this black family (East Texas, 1968)–even if he’d like to, and eventually, Daniel’s aunt June (Daniel’s mother’s twin sister) is located and hauled back to Texas. June isn’t a nurturing woman. In fact she makes it clear that raising a kid is the last thing she wants to do, but she does it. Years later, Aunt June is dead and Daniel, now an author, inherits her home. Around that time, a drought hits, Moon Lake shrinks to nothing, and in the dry lakebed, Daniel’s father’s car is retrieved. What remains of the body is in the vehicle, but the car is parked in a garage, and stranger still, a skeleton is found wrapped in rags in the trunk. Everyone assumes that it’s Daniel’s mother, but Daniel remembers that his mother had a silver star placed in one of her front teeth, and there’s no such tooth on the corpse in the trunk. Local law enforcement assume that Daniel’s father murdered his wife, stuffed her body in the trunk and then proceeded to drive the car in the lake as a murder-suicide. But Daniel isn’t buying that theory.
My mother was beautiful and mysterious-that silver star in her front tooth, her charming hippie outfits-but if you knew her for long, you realized how peculiar she was as well. It’s like she had clawed open a hole in the universe, gone into it, and clawed it back together again.
Back in Long Lincoln to identify the body found in the trunk, Daniel takes a room with a local widow, not the most hospitable woman, but the arrangement works. With Ronnie Candles, now a police officer, Daniel discovers that the lake holds many secrets and rich and powerful people are determined to keep those stories buried. Daniel finds a few unexpected allies and begins digging into the town’s hidden past.
I am a Joe Lansdale fan. Last year I read and loved More Better Deals, but Moon Lake is not his best. The freshness and vitality of More Better Deals is absent here, and while I liked some of the characters, overall the theme of small town corruption said nothing new. The most interesting character, Daniel’s aunt, plays only a minor role and disappears from the book all too soon. Interestingly, it’s the female characters here that grabbed my attention: Officer Ronnie Candles, mouthy Aunt June, the antisocial landlady, Mrs. Chandler, Shirley, the brainy intern, and Christine, the owner of the local paper. The male characters couldn’t hold the spaces they inhabited quite as well.