The Better Half

Nightwing, by Martin Cruz Smith

A sleeper in this contention is Martin Cruz Smith (the Arkady Renko novels: Gorky Park, Polar Star, Red Square, Havana Bay), who is part Pueblo Indian. (A Salon interview states that "his mother was a Pueblo Indian jazz singer"! The Internet Public Library identifies his background as Pueblo/Yaqui and his mother as a jazz musician and Indian Rights activist.) Smith had his earliest success writing about the Southwest. His Nightwing and Stallion Gate predate the "Indian mystery" fad by a decade. Nightwing is not, strictly speaking, a mystery, though the protagonist is a police officer. Stallion Gate stakes out Michael McGarrity's territory pretty well; set in Los Alamos during the war, it features a spy story with an American Indian hero. It's not as credible as Joseph Kanon's Los Alamos or as rich as the classic Los Alamos novel, Frank Waters' The Woman at Otowi Crossing, but it's a fun read.

Nightwing was made into an excellent film soon after it appeared in the mid '70's. It combines mystery and horror themes in a story about vampire bats (real ones) migrating north into Arizona. The protagonist, Youngman Duran, is an Indian cop so much like Hillerman's Jim Chee that for years I had elements of this novel tangled Hillerman's books. Possibly Duran was an inspiration for the Chee character who follows him a decade later.

Duran is Hopi, college-educated, working on a relationship with an Anglo girl who wishes he was ambitious. His mentor is a crazy old Hopi sorcerer, Abner Tupasi, shunned even by his own people. Abner summons the bats, fed up with the course of contemporary life. Duran combines modern criminology with his growing understanding of Hopi witchcraft and religion to face down the coming plague, aided by his girlfriend and a white biologist with his own reasons for hating the bats. A good picture of reservation politics rounds out an underappreciated novel.

Smith also wrote a novel called The Indians Won, an alternate history with, of course, the Indian Wars of the nineteenth century turning out a little differently. Apparently published as a paperback original, it is so rare that a good copy of it sells for $175. He has also written four Nick Carter potboilers with Indian themes.

In a sense, Smith is the best "American Indian mystery writer." The irony, of course, is that he has chosen, after a few early efforts, not to write about Indian subjects. So the best mystery novel by an Indian author turns out to be Gorky Park.

Spirit Sickness, by Kirk Mitchell

Kirk Mitchell

Kirk Mitchell was a police officer in the Nevada/California border area for some years. He has been a prolific writer but all over the board in terms of genre and topic, with historicals on the Roman Empire and the Civil War and a novel apparently about Russian espionage. He wrote a series of three novels (the "Malice" series) set in his police stomping grounds, with a female BLM ranger, Dee Laguerre, as the protagonist. Laguerre is a Basque, a Nevada native, and the novels all concern environmental and political issues of the Great Basin. They are not bad (but out-of-print); Dee Laguerre doesn't measure up to Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon (My annotated Nevada Barr bibliography), but she is a strong character, and the novels lead logically to the topic and setting of his first "Indian mystery."

If Mitchell continues to write Parker/Turnipseed novels as engaging, accurate, and professional as the second and third books, Spirit Sickness and The Ancient Ones, we can expect more good writing in the Hillerman genre even after the grand old man himself retires.

Cry Dance

Mitchell's first novel featuring his Indian detective team, Cry Dance is good but hardly distinguished. Emmett Quanah Parker, Comanche BIA investigator, and Anna Turnipseed, Modoc FBI agent assigned to Las Vegas, team up to solve a murder that appears to be a grisly ritualized slaying on an isolated reservation but turns out, as the investigation rolls forward, to have some political and criminal connections to Las Vegas casino money. The novel tries to do too much. We get heavy backstory for both protagonists, and a flirtation with a love story; Parker and Turnipseed both have skeletons in their closets that will support the personal side of a few more novels. We get Havapai, Paiute, and Sioux antagonists, including a master criminal from Parker's past. The action careens around like a runaway car through California, Nevada, and Arizona. Even with my decades of knowledge of the region, I got lost and confused repeatedly as we raced here and flew there.

Ultimately, there are too many villains, too many plots, and too many climaxes to make a satisfying novel. It's as if Mitchell tried to get it all into one novel. Fortunately, that problem does not appear in the next book, Spirit Sickness. In this second entry, Mitchell gets it right, and the result is very good.

Note: Mitchell took some flack from readers for introducing Rastafaranism and reggae to the southwestern reservations – a classic case of knowing your subject too well. In fact, there is a strong connection between the Rastafa movement and the tribes in Arizona, strange as it may sound.
I was eating lunch one afternoon at the Hopi Cultural Center, bemused by the fact that the only other guests in the restaurant were a dreadlocked and camo-clad reggae band (Burning Spear, I think, before they were well-known). Their band bus was parked outside. Driving north after lunch, musing on the uniqueness of encountering a reggae band randomly stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere (on their way to or from LA, I assumed), I saw a huge banner draped across the local high school gym proclaiming with garish colors and exclamation points the reggae concert scheduled for that evening.
Readers balked at the unlikely facts and, interestingly, did not pick up on the real inauthencity, the bizarre pseudo-cultural claim that Plains Indians actually scalped faces under some circumstances. Not quite as weird as Hanta Yo's revelation of the authentic sacred Yankton bj (exposed by a Yankton "holy man" to the gullible Ms. Hill), but close.

Spirit Sickness

Of all the novels under consideration, none comes closer than the second Parker/Turnipseed mystery, Spirit Sickness, to impersonating Tony Hillerman; if it were being sold as a new novel by Hillerman that drew on his own personal background (Hillerman grew up going to a reservation school in Oklahoma) to introduce some new characters, I might have been fooled. But there is more here than mere impersonation. That is an unfair characterization of a novel that takes up the Navajo Big Rez as its setting and explores the land, the people, and the culture effectively.

Parker and Turnipseed are brought in to investigate the brutal murder of a Navajo cop and his wife. Clues point to a drug-runners and bootleggers. A Navajo youth gang hovers on the periphery of the action, and a charismatic, ambitious Navajo police detective, John Tallsalt, an old friend of Parker's from his college (and alcoholic) days, has interfered with evidence. But most ominous and inexplicable is a strange character whose point-of-view the book steps into occasionally, someone obsessed with the Gila Monster hero of Navajo mythology and fixated on killing "Moth people."

The Gila Monster is clearly a madman, his musing a hodge-podge of Navajo myth, Mormon theology (blood atonement), and nightmarish personal history. He steals tagged Gila Monsters from a herpetologist in southern Utah and one of them attacks Anna. After she recovers, she finds herself face-to-face with the killer himself and the plot threads begin to wind together, leading to a climax with an excellent chase and an edge-of-the-seat final confrontation. The truth, it turns out, is simpler and vastly more interesting than anything the clues suggested.

Ancient Ones

The next entry in the series, Ancient Ones focuses on the rocky personal relationship between Emmet and Anna. The crime under investigation, a series of murders surrounding the discovery of some controversial ancient bones, is as topical as Kennewick Man and Mad Cow Disease. Parker and Turnipseed are called into investigate, and the clues lead them, once again, to a bizarre, fascinating, and exciting solution. The mixture of thrills ands education here is worthy of the best of the Chee/Leaphorn novels, and if the on-again/off-again romance between Turnipseed and Parker is dragging on, we are getting to know them well, and like them a great deal indeed.

More recently, Sky Woman Falling moves the team to upstate New York, where they are involved in solving a bizarre murder intricately tangled with Oneida creation stories and land disputes. I confess I found the murder so far-fetched, and the 'explanation' so incredible that I set this one aside without reviewing it. It offers a great twist in the personal subplot, but that too is contrived and, frankly, an unwelcome development, given how it leads to some changes in the next novel.

Dance of the Thunder Dogs(October 2004) removes Anna Turnipseed from the scene. Set in the Comanche territory in Oklahoma, it provides us with a solid backstory and understanding of Emmett. We can only hope that hints in the book will prove prophetic, and the next novel will do the same for Anna, preparatory to bringing them back together. Personally, I think separating the characters is a bad idea, but I'm willing to withhold judgment for a year or so.

The "thunder dogs" of the story are the Comanche horses, specifically the 1,500 head horseherd slaughtered by Ranald MacKenzie to crush Quanah Parker's "insurgents." They figure in Emmett's dreams and a number of other elements that connect him to the spiritual life of his people. The secular crime in progress is the topical theft of Indian monies from the BIA trust, focused by the murder of Emmett's boyhood friend Jerome Crowe, who is investigating the crime.

The book is seriously weakened by a hyped-up conflict between Emmett and a Kiowa FBI man. Emmett is pursued throughout the novel as the prime suspect in the killing of Crowe. We never quite believe that Mangas really thinks Emmett is implicated, and we know that Emmett's suspicions about Mangas trying to kill him because Mangas is in cahoots with the trust looters. Their final confrontation, after Emmett's innocence and Mangas' honesty have been mutually established, has all the silliness of an Olympian pissing contest.

That said, the picture of Oklahoma's Indian peoples is credible and interesting, and the book as a whole is a quick, fun read. Given the weakness of Hillerman's last two novels, I would actually rate this book ahead of them.

Death at Rainy Mountain, by Mardi Oakley Medawar
People of the Whistling Waters, by Mardi Oakley Medawar

Mardi Oakley Medawar

Medawar, who is of an Oklahoma Indian background (Cherokee), won the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best First Novel in 1994, for People of the Whistling Waters, a historical novel set on the Crow reservation at the turn of the century. She is also the author of a novel about a native American woman in contemporary Oklahoma, The Misty Hills of Home. She has two continuing series in the mystery genre, the Tay-bodal novels, set in nineteenth-century Oklahoma among the Kiowa Indians, and a series just under way, set on Wisconsin's Red Cliff Reservation.

Her Tay-bodal novels, a series of murder mysteries with a nineteenth-century Kiowa village as their setting, hinge on a challenging assumption: That mystery fiction and westerns can be fused to create something that might suit both genres. Her "detective" is a young Kiowa misfit, Tay-bodal, a non-conformist doctor whose life depends on his usefulness to one of the most powerful chiefs of the period, Satanta (referred to by his translated name, White Bear, throughout the series). Tay-bodal lacks proper respect for the warrior traditions, and he is too analytical to become an Owl Doctor (a dealer in the supernatural and psychology), but too inquisitive to practice the physical doctoring of accepted wisdom that characterizes the Buffalo Doctors. As you can imagine, Medawar runs the risk of having her hero come across as an anachronism. But she pulls it off in the first novel, and after a couple of uneven sequels, she recently capped the series with the best book of all.

Death at Rainy Mountain

In Death at Rainy Mountain, the Kiowa bands have gathered to mourn the death of Chief Little Bluff, a historical figure, and the cast of characters includes both the invented and the real: Satanta, Kicking Bird, Big Tree, Lone Wolf, and Satank play roles in the plot, and the mystic Skywalker is Mammedatay, the ancestor of Kiowa novelist Scott Momaday. The gathering turns ugly when The Cheyenne Robber, favorite nephew of White Bear (Satanta) is accused of murdering the nephew of Kicking Bird, one of White Bear's rivals for leadership of the nation, now that Little Bluff is dead. White Bear enlists Tay-bodal's help to clear The Cheyenne Robber's name.

The narrator, Kiowa doctor Tay-bodal, is an original idea; his character is what makes the novel work. He is a bonesetter and herbalist, more a "Buffalo Doctor" than a spiritual healer, and he is fascinated by the technology of white medicine, in which he recognizes the practical value. (His objectivity allows him to identify limitations of white medicine as well.) His distinctive voice, humorous, self-deprecating, keeps the novel moving. His friendship with Skywalker, an "Owl Doctor" or spiritualist who depends on Tay-bodal for herbs that treat his migraines, allows Medawar to explore the differences between traditional and scientific medical practice, and Tay-bodal's encounters with cavalry doctors are a big piece of the fun. Medawar's detective is a pragmatist in a supernatural world, best friend of the tribe's most notable religious figure but himself a dealer in herbs and improvised contemporary medicine.

And a sharp analytical thinker. When the much admired Cheyenne Robber, White Bear's favorite nephew, is accused of murdering the nephew of Kicking Bird, Tay-bodal is ordered to clear him. He attacks the problem with the thoroughness of Holmes himself. The twists and turns of the narrative both advance the plot and illuminate traditional Kiowa life. The background of the novels is the fateful ten years when the Kiowa accepted the inevitability of white incursion into their territory and of reservation life. As the series progresses, we are witness to the key historic moments leading up to the death of White Bear and Satank, the murder and execution of Kiowa leaders, and the systematic promise-breaking and betrayal that reduced the survivors to poverty.

This is a book not to miss, if you are interested in authentic books on American Indian subjects or if you like a good mystery. Medawar does a good job of describing things from a non-white perspective (I can't comment on how accurately she represents Kiowa thought, since I'm not a Kiowa), and the murder and its solution are both cleverly contrived.

Aside from Tay-bodal's distinctive voice, most of the elements that made the series interesting are gone from the second and third books (Witch of the Palo Duro and Murder at Medicine Lodge) in the series. These novels develop the continuing characters – White Bear, Skywalker, Three Elks, Hears the Wolf, Crying Wind, Duck and Beloved – and certain effects in The Ft. Larned Incident have their causes in what came before. I can excuse the weak writing, because the stories are first-person narratives, and Tay-bodal is a storyteller working in his second language, not a writer. (The bad editing, which Medawar is not responsible for, is not excusable.) But I suspect it is Medawar, not Tay-bodal, who is handling the narrative clumsily. Fortunately, the new book, The Ft. Larned Incident, takes us back to the thing that distinguished the first book – a fresh view of Kiowa culture in the nineteenth century.

Brief Reviews of

Witch of the Palo Duro and

Murder at Medicine Lodge


The Ft. Larned Incident

The latest Tay-bodal story is The Ft. Larned Incident and it shows Medawar back at her best. In place of the chaotic profusion of subplots in the previous novels (I can't even remember how many murders, or murderers, we ended up with) is a single killing, the story framed by Tay-bodal's reminiscence from fifty years later.
The Ft. Larned Incident, by Mardi Oakley Medawar
The book begins with the Kiowa doctor a lonely old man in a reservation cabin, staring at his aged face in the mirror. Through supernatural means or wishful thinking, the image in the mirror becomes younger and Tay-bodal returns in his memory to the unsolved case that has haunted him for fifty years, the murder of Three Elks.

Threads from all the previous novels braid together in this book: the series of deceptions and manipulations that Three Elks practiced to wheedle his way into White Bear's good graces, the philandering of The Cheyenne Robber, the story of Hears the Wolf and Beloved, parents of The Cheyenne Robber's wife. And through it all, the history of that most fateful year in Kiowa history, the year they accepted the reservation and began to experience the duplicity and lies that the U. S. Government used to subjugate, impoverish, and destroy native peoples.

There is a validictory feel about this novel, especially when the ancient Tay-bodal assembles the elderly survivors of the incident, to try one final time to unlock their secrets. His loved ones—Skywalker, Crying Bird—are dead. And gone, a few years after the murder at Ft. Larned, are Big Tree, Satanta, Satank, and Kicking Bird. The Cheyenne Robber and Skywalker were among the Kiowa leaders chosen for random punishment by exile to the Tortugas, where they died. Hears the Wolf was miraculously spared that death and lives, like Tay-bodal, his last years on the reservation. Crying Wind became a fundamentalist Christian but remained the love of Tay-bodal's life.

Surely there are more stories to tell, about those last four years of the Kiowa's history as a free people, about the reservation years.Tay-bodal is too good a character to retire so soon, and the reservation Indian is, without a doubt, the least examined of the culture. (Linda Hogan's Mean Spirit is set in the early years of the Oklahoma reservations.) Unfortunately, Medawar's publisher has lost interest in the series, which is not selling fast enough for their taste. Medawar has already completed the first novel of a new Indian series set in Wisconsin, where she now resides. The heroine is a contemporary American Indian woman, Karen Charboneau, and the first title is Murder on the Red Cliff Rez.
Murder on the Red Cliff Rez, by Mardi Oakley Medawar
I wish her luck with the new books, but I hope Tay-bodal will catch Medawar's ear again someday. And find another publisher.

Murder on the Red Cliff Rez

Medawar's new series introduces Karen Charboneau, a Red Cliff Chippewa potter and expert tracker. It's a fun read, with high energy and lots of good humor—not the roll around laughing sort, the smile while your friend tells you about the cute thing her kids did sort. A minor tribal official rumored to be abusing his wife is murdered, and the wife disappears. Personal crime of passion or crime of political expediency? We'll see. Charboneau, who was trained in woodcraft by the chief suspect, takes a team of police officers into the woods to find him, and things become dizzyingly complicated.

Medawar never seems to be satisfied with one crime and criminal. Here we end up with so many bad guys, all bagged at once and none of whom, it turns out, is the killer, that I gave up trying to sort out who did what, why, and how that related to the murder. Reading her books, with their noisy dialog (people shout at each other a lot), dogtrot pacing (you get the feeling that nobody ever walks anywhere), and manic exaggeration, you may sometimes find yourself wanting to sit her down and ask her to take a breath, count to ten, and start over. Trust me, she won't, so just hang on for the duration, and enjoy the wind in your face.

I think the over-the-top tone is deliberate, a style no more affected than the mournful ex-alcoholic drone of so many male mystery narrators. And the exaggerations? Well, they are always right on the edge of believable. A stand of trees that figures in the story is said to be four hundred feet tall, for example. Ok, maybe this was true "back in the old days," but my understanding, which I verified, was that the California Redwoods tower over all other trees on the planet, and the tallest redwoods don't reach four hundred feet. But she got me. If she'd said five hundred feet, or a thousand, I'd have known I was being had. As it is, I'm wondering.

It may take a while to get comfortable with Medawar's mile-a-minute delivery, but the book is a fun read, and its humor is a far cry from the inane, sophomoric clowning in the Doss "Shaman" series. If Medawar's characters are a bit cartoonish, they are interesting people nonetheless. I'm not sure where she's going to go with a heroine who's only real "mystery novel" skill is tracking, or how she is going to sustain multiple crimes in a location where, as she mentions in the opening pages, there hasn't been a murder in fifty years, especially when Steve Hamilton is working practically the same territory. The big difference from Hamilton's perspective is that she can work from inside the rez, while Hamilton's Alex McKnight is an outsider.

Medawar lives at Red Cliff and her Ojibway are drawn from life, a cross-section of old traditionals, Michif, and feisty young kids. Her picture of reservation politics is accurate and interesting, and the dialog has a crisp, authentic (but a bit noisy) feel. Karen has two suitors, both police officers, and there is some tension in the air. For the guys, the issue is competition. For Karen, it's forgiving the one she wants. It will be an interesting series to watch.

Sadly, we seem to have heard the last of Mardi Oakley Medawar. Considering the popularity of talentless buffoons like James Doss, this is tragic. Medawar's books are flawed in minor ways, but compared to what the "burger joint" publishing houses slop onto our literary plates, they are gourmet delights.

Dream Stalker, by Margaret Coel

Margaret Coel

Anthropologist/historian Margaret Coel, who is the author of a good American Indian biography, Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapaho, began her Wind River Reservation mysteries with, of all things, a university press imprint. The incongruity shows; the novels are less satisfying as mysteries than as intellectual exercises. A number of unbelievable elements creep in; the hero, a priest named John O'Malley, is constantly flirting (in both senses) with the notion of having an affair with his co-hero, Arapaho lawyer Victoria Holden. By the third novel, you will be thinking 'Fish or cut bait!"

The Eagle Catcher

The first book in the series introduces the continuing protagonists, a Catholic priest and an Arapaho lawyer, and gives some good backstory to both of them. O'Malley is an exiled Boston alcoholic whose academic career was ruined by his boozing. He has stayed clear of the bottle out on the high plains of Wyoming, and he has come to have a real affection and respect for his Arapaho parishioners. Vickie Holden abandoned a promising career and an abusive husband, and returned home to practice country law. The old women of the reservation call her "Woman Alone", but she is accepted among her people as an Arapaho damaged by her flirtation with the white world. The two meet while trying to solve the murder of a tribal chairman. As the story unfolds, shady oil deals and tribal graft move to center stage.

The Ghost Walker

O'Malley discovers a body along side the road, in a blizzard, and he loses it. Nobody is missing; the cops wonder if he's back on the bottle. Then Vickie's daughter returns to the rez with some men of dubious character and things start to fall into place, land deals and drug running. This one is set in the winter, and the brutal Wyoming weather plays a major role in the action.

The Dream Stalker

This is the most political of the novels, and Coel has taken some hits from her right-wing fans on the Northern Plains for Vickie Holden's uncompromising stand against a nuclear waste dump. It is a topical issue on the reservations, which were originally created from land white people didn't want, then hacked up when white people found things they did want (gold, coal, oil, uranium), and now are rapidly being designated as dumping grounds for things white people don't want ("Nobody" lives there...). Some things never change. But Coel is no Ed Abbey, so the strident politics of the novel are, ultimately, rather polite. And the "forbidden romance" between Vickie and John is heating up. Will they? Will they feel guilty? Ho hum.

The Story Teller

Holden is trying to track down a museum artifact that has enormous historical value and, as it turns out, material value. O'Malley wants to establish a tribal museum in Ethete, Wyoming. His intended curator, a young Arapaho anthropology student, turns up dead, and the two quests converge in a plot that mixes history, politics, and tribal conflicts. Most of the novel takes palce in Colorado, culminating in a visit to the site of the Sand Creek Massacre. As in the other books, the bad guy is way too obvious for my taste (you will spot him whole chapters before Vickie or John does), and the big confrontation at the end is a bit more believable than a comic book. Too bad, because this novel shows that if Coel would stick to writing what she knows (which is not criminal intrigue), she could do some pretty good work.

The Lost Bird

I am trying desperately to like Margaret Coel's mysteries. I had high hopes for The Lost Bird, because it made some bestseller lists. (But then, that "distinction" is visited regularly upon Patricia Cornwell and Jeffrey Deaver; so that doesn't tell me much.)
The Lost Bird, by Margaret Coel
"Lost Birds" are adopted children, more specifically Native American children adopted out of the tribe and therefore lost to their larger family. Like the other novels, this one has a foundation in that is simply unbelievable. Coel lacks the nerve to be a good mystery writer. Here, she gives the "forbidden romance" of O'Malley and Holden a twist that will make you want to throw the book in the air.

As in The Story Teller, you will figure out the plot pages before the protagonists do. You will know the killer the moment you meet him, and the idea that he could have done what he did and lived the life he lived for thirty years after is the stuff of bad TV movies. Coel seems to have recognized this latter problem, so she throws in an accomplice even more obvious, who becomes the real bad guy. One gets the feeling that, aside from the details of Arapaho life and culture, Coel writes about the world she saw on TV. I haven't given up; I'll try Spirit Woman when it comes out in September, but I'm just being loyal to a fellow scholar and Coloradoan.

The Spirit Woman

The previous novel ended with Vickie Holden inexplicably back with her abusive husband. The latest of Coel's "Arapaho mysteries" is fixated on spousal abuse. Vickie has her husband, her anthropologist friend is back with her charming and violent boyfriend, an Arapaho woman has her husband, and Sacajawea's abuse by her drunken thug of a husband is reported from the Lewis and Clark journals. Subtlety is not a necessary part of a good story, but it helps. Coel's heart is in the right place, and she knows her Arapahos, but human relationships, especially those of the violent world of mystery fiction, are not her strong suit.

Once again the murderer is unlikely to the point of being a random choice, and the story telegraphs the answer to you just a few too many pages before the "detectives" get the picture. Once again, the likelihood of the killer having actually done what he did, in a world not run by a plot-spinning novelists, is slim. These books have a loyal following, and I suppose these problems do not matter to those readers. Personally, I find the almost-love affair of Father John O'Malley and Victoria Holden a tiresome tease. These are TV lovers suffering TV angst they learned from watching Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds. Reality is much simpler, and a lot more complex.

The Thunder Keeper

In terms of plotting, at least, this book is an improvement on previous entries. A believeable villain, a twist at the end, and a plausible motive help. And the Holden/O'Malley "forbidden romance" is on hold while O'Malley searches his soul and Holden picks up a new beau. As a sample of what the books are good at, The Thunder Keeper is a better choice than some. There have been some complaints about "recycled elements" in the plot, but someone picking up their first Coel novel won't need to worry about this.

Killing Raven

The tangle of casino corruption, militant extremism, and Holden's new love interest doesn't work. As often happens in the weakest novels of the series, the solution reveals nothing more than Coel's second-hand knowledge of criminal elements she cannot imagine very convincingly. This is one where we spend far too much of the novel like the belabored horror-movie audience muttering "Don't open the door, you idiot!"

Wife of Moon

With the O'Malley/Holden hemisemidemiromance finally a distant memory, Coel gets focused on with the real appeal of her series, accurate (or at least credible) pictures of reservation life and a well-plotted mystery to fuel the education. This is one of the better books, and does an excellent job of weaving together a contemporary and a historical plot. A woman was killed duing an Edward S. Curtis photo shoot in 1907, and that murder is at the hub of a series of murders on the contemporary Arapahoe rez. The villain is credible, the historical details (many of them invented, however) are interesting, the pace is swift, and the conclusion is very satisfying. Coel writes to a predictable formula, but when she hits her marks, the result is a fun read. Recommended as an introduction to the series.

Eye of the Wolf

The Drowning Man

One of the better entries in the series, if you can filter out the same old flaws: bad guys who step on stage with a drum roll of obviousness, more whining from O'Malley about his hopeless love for Vickie Holden, Vickie's on-again/off-again "love affair" with her current O'Malley surrogate, more threats of O'Malley's imminent transfer. Yeah, yeah, read past it. Then what is left is a fairly complex weave of circumstance surrounding two crimes, the theft, seven years apart, of two sacred petroglyphs, with a murder complicating the first. Two young Arapaho men are believed to have stolen the stone, but one of them is killed and the other convicted of murder, so the theft remains unprosecuted.

Coel does her Indians better than her plots, and here a subtle touch – the Arapahoes don't want the Arapaho boy released, innocent of murder or not. Add to the mix an intelligent subplot about a pedophile priest and another about keeping the white corporate pigs out of sacred land, and you have a pleasant evening's entertainment.


Jake Page

The American Indian element in Jake Page's Mo Bowdre novels is the hero's Hopi girlfriend and their interaction with her extended family. Most of the novels have an "Indian" connection, but it is pretty tenuous at times (as in The Lethal Partner, for example, which is about Georgia O'Keefe, not Indians, but is otherwise one of the better ones). While the Indian elements are there, the real draw is the fact that Bowdre is a blind sculptor (if that premise seems bizarre, consider that Michael Naranjo, a famous New Mexico sculptor, is blind). His work is primarily animal sculptures, and his connections to the Santa Fe art scene are as important to the plots as his personal relationship with Connie, the Hopi accountant. The early Bowdre novels are out of print, but sometimes available at Powell's or Alibris.

The Lethal Partner, by Jake Page

In the first novel, The Stolen Gods (special order, easier to get at your local secondhand book store), the combination works, though Page lacks Hillerman's feel for good dialog and his villains are not even mildly interesting. Here the plot hinges on the theft of Hopi fetishes worth more on the black market than their Hopi owners could ever match. The action moves back and forth between New Mexico and Arizona, and a visit to the Hopi Reservation is featured. The Deadly Canyon (also a special order item) is the second entry in the series, with Bowdre working on a piece for an isolated wildlife research facility while undercover for the FBI. The third book in the series, The Knotted Strings, is out-of-print except as an audio cassette; in it, a movie is being made about the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and Bowdre is on the set because Connie has a bit part in the film. When the leading man is murdered, Bowdre is called on to investigate. Not one of the better novels, though the story of the Pueblo Revolt (or Popé's Rebellion) is an interesting historic footnote most Americans never have read. In the fourth novel, The Lethal Partner, Bowdre is entangled with art-world intrigue when seven unknown Georgia O'Keefe paintings (worth a fortune, of course) disappear. This one is the best in the series, I think; and it is the one with the least connection to Indians. The most recent entry in the series is A Certain Malice, about racism, incest, and murder in the Santa Fe ranching community. The resolution gives an interesting twist to an age-old problem.

Note: Page also dabbles in Western Americana and science fiction (Cavern); he has written a couple of "alternate history" novels about the Southwest: Operation Shatterhand (the Nazis invade from Mexico to knock us out of WWII) and Apacheria (the Apaches forge their own nation and, a decade into the 20th century, link up with the Mob to hold off white domination).


Dana Stabenow

I've been debating where to put Dana Stabenow. I've read a handful of the Kate Shugak novels, enjoyed them, but the first left so little impression that I didn't recognize it as I read through the summaries. The second was Blood Will Tell, about Aleut tribal politics and female identity. Kate's grandmother forces her to take a stand, both about her own life and about the land developer issues the old woman has chosen to fight. A good read, but I wasn't moved to find more of the ten Kate Shugak novels. I'm willing to write off my lack of enthusiasm to personal interest. In my mind, the Eskimo cultures don't count as Indian. Indigenous, yes; Native American, sure; aboriginal and all that. But they are as different from the Indian cultures as Lapps from Finns, Basques from the French and Spanish. The setting (Alaska, of course) is also of little interest.

Stabenow is a much better writer than her closest competitor in this rapidly growing field, John Straley ( The Woman Who Married a Bear, The Angels WIll Not Care). Straley specializes in great titles that may con you into thinking the book will be as good. And his covers often suggest that there will be an Indian connection. There isn't. I've been suckered twice, and his stumblebum p.i., Cecil Younger (imagine that James Welch's Jim Loney had lived, gone to Alaska, and decided to work as a detective) has nothing to recommend him except an understated belief in his own uniqueness.

Stabenow has written ten Kate Shugak novels and currently is in the midst of a new Alaskan series with an Alaskan cop, Liam Campbell, as the protagonist. Her fans like both series.

All The Kate Shugak Novels

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