Nine-10ths of a Triumph: On John Steinbeck’s “Murder at Full Moon”

By Jess NevinsOctober 31, 2021

Nine-10ths of a Triumph: On John Steinbeck’s “Murder at Full Moon”
UNLIKE OTHER GENRES of popular literature, detective fiction has been self-referential from its inception. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), for example, pointedly critiques the detective tactics of Eugène-François Vidocq’s Mémoires de Vidocq, chef de la police de sûreté jusqu’en 1827 (1828), and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) correctly states, “It’s only in books that the officers of the detective force are superior to the weakness of making a mistake.” By 1930, self-referentiality had become a standard genre trope in mysteries, used by authors from S. S. Van Dine to Agatha Christie to Dorothy Sayers. One could even argue that the mystery genre and not Joyce’s Ulysses gave birth to the modern metafictional novel.

John Steinbeck’s unpublished horror-mystery novel Murder at Full Moon (1930) should be considered within this context. The manuscript aroused intense interest this spring when Gavin Jones, author of Reclaiming John Steinbeck (2021), publicized its existence and described it as a “werewolf” novel. Murder at Full Moon might have been successfully published if its murderer was a werewolf and not someone suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. But the manuscript was written at a time when Steinbeck was struggling to find success as a professional writer, and the final draft was such a failure (in his own eyes) that he demanded his agent submit the novel under the pseudonym “Peter Pym.” His agent found no takers. The embarrassed Steinbeck eventually withdrew the manuscript in disgust and consigned it to his papers.

Those critics who have written about Murder at Full Moon have done so derisively. Robert DeMott, in the introduction to the 1995 edition of Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown, describes Murder at Full Moon as “a shameless commercial satire of pulp-detective novels”; Luchen Li and Jeffrey Schultz, in their Critical Companion to John Steinbeck (2005), condemn it as “a cynical attempt at a standard commercial mystery-thriller”; and William Souder, in Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck (2020), describes it as “cheesy” and “the very worst” writing. Yet, when viewed with unbiased eyes, Murder at Full Moon reveals neither shamelessness, satire, cynicism, cheesiness, nor indeed anything standard whatsoever. Rather, the manuscript is ambitious and well written: a canny, self-referential horror-mystery that uses the tropes of the contemporary mystery novel to transgress the genre’s restrictions and point the way toward something new. If Murder at Full Moon is let down by its ending, when Steinbeck’s manipulation of mystery tropes gives way to a too-solid embrace of the genre’s clichés, the rest of the novel fulfills Steinbeck’s apparent ambition to write a mystery novel that was both a summa of the genre, as it was practiced in 1930, and a call for radical changes in the genre. 

Murder at Full Moon is narrated from the point of view of Egg Waters, a college student suspended from his school after a night of drunken tomfoolery who is then forced to work a job for a year’s time in order to gain readmission. Waters finds his job in the fictional locale of Cone City, a dismal, waterlogged, fog-and-wind-beset town somewhere in central California. He becomes the reporter for the town’s newspaper and in that role is present as mysterious crimes begin to take place. The local bon vivant, Luis Caré, has been receiving harassing notes, and somebody has been burning “PAY” into the walls of his house. Then, during a full moon, this same person kills one of the dogs at the hunting club to which Caré belongs, where Waters is a guest. The harasser then kills all but one of the hunting club’s dogs — as well as the club’s Swedish chef, burning more threatening words into the walls.

The brutish town sheriff fails to make any headway solving the mystery, so Waters turns to the sheriff’s rival, Maximilian Sergius Hoogle, a wealthy eccentric who resembles a mustached potato bug. Hoogle, who has spent a lifetime consuming detective and mystery novels, eagerly takes the case, and quickly perceives its real outlines, its future trajectory, and its likely resolution. Waters becomes his assistant.

At the next full moon, someone murders Luis Caré and attacks Mac, the club’s keeper of the dogs. Hoogle proclaims that he knows how to catch the murderer, consults with a Freud-like alienist, and has Waters summon together all the secondary characters (and suspects) in the novel to watch him do it. The murderer turns out to be one of Mac’s personalities, whose dementia praecox (an outdated term for what is now called schizophrenia) created a tormented personality appearing at every full moon, focusing his hate and fear on Luis Caré, carrying out the campaign of harassment and murder against him.

At first glance, Murder at Full Moon seems to consist primarily of the clichéd routines and tropes of detective fiction circa 1930: the whodunnit structure; the eccentric but all-knowing detective; the hapless sidekick; the events that abide by “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” laid out by S. S. Van Dine in 1928 and by the “Ten Commandments” for mystery stories conceived of by Ronald Knox in 1929; the gathering of the characters at the end to watch the detective reveal and apprehend the murderer; and so on. A superficial reading of Murder at Full Moon could indeed lead one to claim that it is “a shameless commercial satire of pulp-detective novels” or “a cynical attempt at a standard commercial mystery-thriller.” But what Steinbeck clearly attempted to do, and mostly succeeded at doing, was tell a mystery story about mysteries as they were written in 1930, and to challenge his fellow mystery authors to write more ambitious material in a more intelligent way — to step up their game.

The opening sequence of Murder at Full Moon serves up drunken hijinks of the sort that Prohibition-era writers, most notably Thorne Smith, used for comedic purposes, but which did not appear in mysteries to any significant degree until later in the 1930s. (Steinbeck repeatedly anticipates future trends in the mystery genre in Murder at Full Moon.) Steinbeck was potentially influenced by Smith, but Steinbeck’s decision to mix screwball comedy with the mystery genre preceded not only screwball comedy movies but also Dashiell Hammett’s use of drunken hijinks in the Nick and Nora Charles novels, screwball mystery novels, and screwball mystery movies by several years.

In chapter two, Steinbeck abruptly applies the real-world logic of the detective novel to Waters’s screwball shenanigans, thrusting him into Cone City: ominous black water marshes filled with sucking mud; crouched, stunted, malicious-seeming trees; sinister ducks. The chapter is pure horror scene setting, well told in the usual, atmospheric Steinbeckian style while also anticipating the horror and Gothic elements in the mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mignon Eberhart, and John Dickson Carr, as well as the California noir novels of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett.

The remainder of Murder at Full Moon settles into the standard late-1920s mystery novel format: crimes, clues, and deductions distributed at even intervals, a penultimate triggering crime, and the revelation and apprehension of the criminal. Steinbeck seems to use every cliché available. But he does three things throughout the novel to elevate it beyond mere genre imitation. First: Steinbeck’s detective Hoogle has an eccentric obsession, bordering on fixation, with mystery plots, which prefigures the obsessive oddity detectives of Harry Stephen Keeler and Anthony Boucher. Second: Hoogle’s invocations of major crime and mystery characters and authors of the late 1920s. He name drops Frank L. Packard’s Gray Seal, S. S. Van Dine and his foppish detective Philo Vance, and Edgar Wallace, among others, demonstrating not only Steinbeck’s familiarity with the leading practitioners of the crime, detective, and mystery genre, but also his familiarity with the prescribed methods and approaches to writing a standard late-1920s mystery novel. Furthermore, these allusions reveal that Steinbeck’s embrace of the genre’s clichés and formulas in the manuscript was a deliberate choice, achieving deeper purposes than mere commercialism.

Last and most important, Steinbeck strikes numerous self-referential notes in the novel via Hoogle’s many statements about the events of Murder at Full Moon. Hoogle muses on how far into the novel’s plot he and Waters are at any given moment. He describes the obligations, responsibilities, and limitations that he has as a mystery novel detective and that Waters has as his sidekick. He even describes the authorial strategies deployed by the criminal of Murder at Full Moon and by Steinbeck, himself, in writing them. In proper metafictional form, Hoogle is aware that he is a character in a mystery novel, and he shares that awareness with Waters and others.

By the time Steinbeck wrote Murder at Full Moon, self-referentiality in detective and mystery fiction had become a genre trope. But mystery writers didn’t write full-blown metafictional novels in 1930; allusions and half-measures were the extent of their indulgence in metafiction. Murder at Full Moon is far beyond what Agatha Christie (whose use of a murderer-narrator in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was such a naked violation of the rules that the reader couldn’t help but be aware of Christie’s transgression) and S. S. Van Dine (who states that his detective, Philo Vance, has edited and corrected the manuscript of the novel that the readers are reading), and the other self-referential mystery authors could or would have produced. In fact, in its self-referentiality and its position relative to the rest of the mystery genre, Murder at Full Moon’s most apposite comparison is Joyce’s Ulysses — another genre-buster whose metafictional elements were later seen by critics as having invented the modern metafictional novel. Steinbeck was a reader and fan of Joyce; later in the 1930s, as part of the Cannery Row club, Steinbeck and a young Joseph Campbell would join in group readings and discussions of Finnegans Wake. So it should be no surprise that Steinbeck made use of Ulysses’s self-referentiality and character awareness to make Murder at Full Moon something apparently formulaic but actually sui generis.

Beyond Steinbeck’s obvious commercial motive — when he wrote Murder at Full Moon he had only one published novel and was in a financially tightened state — he seems to have had another motive in writing the manuscript: a desire to create a new direction for mystery fiction, one that would take the genre away from its more rote aspects and into more thoughtful territory. When Steinbeck wrote Murder at Full Moon, crime, detective, and mystery tales were essentially separated into distinct fiefdoms: Holmesian, hard-boiled, cozy, drawing room, and so on. It’s fair to say that all but one of these subgenres had become ossified and lacking in creative energy by 1930 — only the hard-boiled subgenre showed the revolutionary energy necessary to revive the mystery genre as a whole. But hard-boiled fiction still appeared mainly as stories in pulp magazines, with only Carroll John Daly’s The Snarl of the Beast (1927), Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), and a small handful of others published as novels. Most mystery stories and novels were not hard-boiled — they were petrified, joyless, and empty. And even hard-boiled fiction, while intelligently written, had its own set of rules, best articulated in Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” (1944). Like any genre rules, they eventually became constraints, so that in 1950 Chandler would wearily write, “Some of us tried pretty hard to break out of the formula, but we usually got caught and sent back.”

Steinbeck, in Murder at Full Moon, embraces the formula of the mainstream detective form in order to transcend it. He was not completely successful — by the end of the manuscript the formula is no longer something to be embraced, but something to be obeyed programmatically — but most of the novel exposes, through Hoogle’s self-aware and slyly transgressive articulation, ways the formula could be transgressed or departed from, and ways a writer could manipulate it or even reject it if they wanted to. Modernism, after all, held as its slogan Pound’s clarion call “Make it new,” and that is what the modernist Steinbeck did with Murder at Full Moon.

Through its deployment of the major genre tropes and seeming obedience to the established rules of the genre, Murder at Full Moon appears to be a standard if not quite archetypal late-1920s mystery novel. But the manuscript’s confrontation with the reader via Hoogle’s self-referential and metafictional commentary, its well-placed departures from genre traditions, and, most especially, the content of Hoogle’s metafictional commentary, constitute a challenge to readers, to be aware of the clichéd structures of the mystery genre and to demand better from what they read. It is also a challenge to writers, to either use the genre’s tropes and formulas as intelligently and transgressively as Steinbeck did, or to transcend the tropes and formulas and make something new.

Murder at Full Moon provides both an exhaustion of the mystery novel formula and an invitation to do something new and unprecedented with it. Its publication might well have provided the same epiphanic shock to mystery writers of the 1930s that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring did to musicians of the mid-1910s and that Schiller’s Die Räuber did to German dramatists in the early 1780s. That Murder at Full Moon was rejected and misunderstood for decades afterward is perhaps proof that readers, writers, critics, and publishers were and are not ready for that invitation.


Jess Nevins is the author of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century (Praeger, 2020) and The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger (Praeger, 2017).


Featured image: "Sonya Noskowiak, John Steinbeck, 1930" by Sonya Noskowiak is licensed under CC BY 2.5. Image has been darkened and cropped.

LARB Contributor

Jess Nevins is the author of Horror Fiction in the 20th Century (Praeger, 2020) and The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger (Praeger, 2017), among other works. He is a college library director in Tomball, Texas.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!