(From Sharilyn Decters’ Website)
An adventurous historical mystery set in Montana’s gold fields. Life in Pony Gulch, Montana isn’t easy for any newcomer, but it’s an especially rocky road when you’re a bootlegging woman brewing moonshine in prohibition-era America. Delores Bailey is used to eking out a tough living in a man’s world. A disapproving community isn’t enough to run her off.
But when her only friend in town (Pete) is killed, Pony Gulch suddenly feels more threatening. A murderer being on the loose is one thing, but Delores knows that she’s primed to take the fall for this one. As a woman already on the outskirts of law-abiding society and a known associate of Pete’s, the suspicion against her mounts quickly. When the customer that could clear her name refuses to provide an alibi, Delores must decide whether to run or stand her ground.
The first novel in the Moonshiner Mystery Series is a good setting up. We are introduced to the cast of characters, place, time, and themes. And all this while enjoying a murder mystery!
The cast of characters is not very big but is very ‘personal’, I want to say. We get to know only a few of these characters, but very well, especially Dolores, the protagonist.
She’s a character who first appeared in Sharilyn Decter’s first mystery series, The Bootlegger Chronicles, where she was initially a secondary character but soon gained prominence in the story.
And it’s not hard to see how she charmed her own creator. She’s a feisty young woman with zero inclination for compromise. She’s street-savvy in some departments due to her previous life in Philadelphia but in other ways quite naive due to her very young age. She’s down-to-earth and a dreamer at the same time. This story is a piece of her journey to becoming a worldly woman.
Some other characters are centre stage to the story – Lucy the schoolteacher and Sam the Sheriff deserve to be mentioned – but I feel that Pony Gulch community shines as a real character. Predominantly male (in the 1920s, it was famous for mining), the few women had to carve their place there, which makes this setting particularly exciting for the kind of female characters we find here.
Pony Gulch is a real place, and you can see how familiar it is to the author. She can describe it with those small details gained by familiarity – and deep research. In the 1920s, it still had a strong feeling of the frontier. Life was still lived as it was in the previous century. This is one of the things I find fascinating about stories set in the 1920s: they mix the old world and the new one in an explosive way and this story perfectly explore that situation.
This is not the only liminal aspect. Some strange stuff happens throughout the story, though nothing gets explained since this is only the first step of a journey that is still quite long. Knowing Sharilyn Decter’s first series, I have suspicions, but I won’t tell!
Give it a go!
Big Sky Murder
Dolores rushed to reassure her. “No, no. I didn’t do it. Don’t worry. I would never hurt a fly, especially a kind man like Pete. He was my friend. But I need to be able to tell Sheriff Browne where I was when Pete was shot.”
Lucie searched Dolores’s face.
“Before supper on Friday. At around four thirty,” Dolores prompted.
Sudden understanding flowed across Lucie’s face, turning her cheeks bright red. Looking down, she took another sip of her expresso. Not meeting Dolores’s gaze, she asked in a whisper, “You were here… with me, weren’t you?”
“Yes. Word is that the doc days he was shot between four and five o’clock, and it’s a long way from here to Pete’s cabin and back. If I was here at four thirty, I couldn’t have been there.
“Are they sure about the time of Pete’s death?” Lucie was fidgeting with the edge of the table clothe.
“As sure as they can be.”
“Four forty on Friday,” Lucie said, still looking down.
“A friend of mine didn’t find him until much later, and he was already cold and stiff. He came back into town and got the sheriff.”
Lucie sat quietly. Dolores could see the schoolteacher’s hand trembled and was at a loss of how to best proceed. Randy miners she could handle – a distressed schoolmarm was outside of her expertise.
And she could see the indecision on Lucie’s face. “I know it’s asking a lot, Miss Santoro.”
Lucie raised her head. “Would anyone need to know?”
Dolores thought about a possible trial and a public courtroom, and those nosy-parker newspapers reporters always scribbling away at the back of the courtroom. “I’m sure we could keep it private.”
“Really, no one would know. It would be ab honest admission, Miss Santoro. And it would help the sheriff find the real killer.”
Dolores looked Lucie think it through. Was that panic in her eyes?
“If the school trustees found out I was buying – and drinking – moonshine, I’d be fired. On the spot.”
The look of panic was replaced by grim determination, and she shook her head decisively. “No. I’m sorry, Miss Bily. It’s out of the question.”