The writer was 28 in 1930, living in a cottage in Pacific Grove, near Monterey, Calif., hoping for his big break. The year before, he had published his first book, “Cup of Gold,” a swashbuckling pirate adventure set in the Caribbean in the 1600s. Though it received better than expected reviews, it was already out of print, Mr. Souder said.
Steinbeck had written more serious books but had not had any luck selling them. He told a friend that all he needed was another 10 or so rejections to become convinced that he should give up on writing.
He was also broke, so he decided, “I’ll just write something terrible for public consumption and try to make a few bucks off it,” Mr. Souder said.
Steinbeck’s writing process typically involved scrawling pages by hand in what Mr. Souder called his “microscopic” handwriting. His wife, Carol Henning Steinbeck, a superb editor, would then type it up, sometimes making tweaks as she went. It took her a couple of weeks to type “Murder at Full Moon,” Mr. Souder said.
Mr. Jones, who is one of the few people to have ever read the book, described the plot (spoilers ahead): The book focuses on a cub reporter who takes a job in the fictional town of Cone City near a spooky dismal marsh. He is soon drawn into the orbit of a local hunting club. When one member’s dog is killed on a moonlit night, the reporter and an eccentric candidate for sheriff decide to investigate. Other, more gruesome killings of people follow, always under a full moon. The illustrations by Steinbeck include a murder scene.
In order to find the killer — who they start to suspect might be a superhuman monster that has arisen from the marsh — the investigators apply a theory of crime detection built on reading bad murder mysteries. This element gives the novel a “postmodern, ironic feel,” Mr. Jones said.
It is a lost piece of California noir, he said. “I think he was inventing something here.”
Steinbeck, who dropped out of Stanford, might be surprised that a Stanford professor would one day praise the book. His use of a pen name might seem odd to a modern audience that has grown accustomed to authors of literary fiction dabbling in horror and other genres. But when Steinbeck sent the manuscript to a college friend, he told the friend, “I don’t want anyone to know I had anything to do with it,” Mr. Souder said.