There is a certain awkwardness about requesting a review copy of a book and then panning it. It's a bit like being paid, as a doctor, to provide a diagnosis that the patient's illness is incurable and untreatable. It seems ungrateful. Because of this, I have tried to find a basis for recommending this book to some audience, and I've tried to convince myself that I could simply not review it at all. Neither works.
It's a hard truth to find no compelling merit in a book, and to be unable to imagine an audience that might benefit from reading it. I'll support this view with what evidence I can provide. As for ignoring the book, I simply can't. The world is rich with poorly written books that can mercifully be ignored. This one I can't extend that mercy. On the one hand, it demands attention if my extended review essay on "Indian Mysteries" is to take itself seriously; it's a book readers might consider moving on to. And it is such a minefield of misinformation that I would be irresponsible not to warn my readers.
I'll begin by saying that my views may be colored by a few circumstances that should not be ignored. I am, after all, in something of a competition with this book, since my "Indian Mysteries" review essay covers some of the same ground. And I am a leafed-out academic with an academic's tastes, standards, and presumptions, including a bit of suspicion of "pop culture" scholars. And I think Browne's preferences among the mystery writers are utterly wrong-headed. Do these three observations disqualify me as a reviewer? I think not. My "competition" with Murder on the Reservation is barely even superficial. I would welcome a good, solid critical book that looks at the authors of this genre and illuminates elements of their work. I certainly don't have time to write one. This book looks in the wrong places, reports inaccurately, and illuminates nothing.
Browne is a professor of popular culture. There are some excellent scholars in that field, some of them friends and former colleagues of mine, some of them respected writers, such as John G. Cawelti, Leo Trachtenberg, Michael Marsden, Philip Deloria, and Jon Tuska. Browne, unfortunately, seems rather to fit the stereotype of that academic discipline: He writes from a kind of defensive leveling stance that willfully ignores traditional standards of quality, for instance. He is, characteristically, a bit condescending to "academics," including even the academic side of a writer he admires anyway, Louis Owens. At his worst, he affects a kind of crackerbarrel literary wisdom that is at once patronizing, facile, and ill-informed, a bit like Frederick March's turn as anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind. Add his incessant discovery of "sex" in his writers (to read his synopses, you might wonder how the novels' characters get anything else done while their plots "throb with sexual desire" [p. 144]), and the image is inevitable.
His literary framework is drawn from the language of popularity rather than quality. His illustrative analogies generally are not to canonical literature (aside from fixations on Moby Dick and Romeo and Juliet, the latter of which he finds echoed in any situation where two people love each other and — these are murder mysteries, remember — one gets dead) or even to "canonical" mystery fiction, but to the stuffed idols of popular culture — mediocre bestsellers, television, comic strips, Elvis. He trivializes "big ideas" when he embraces them. He seems to think, for example, that "mysticism" means "ghost stories"; witness the "mysticism" of the "Old Popeye Woman" story in The Shaman's Game, a novel he identifies as "hip-deep in Indian mysticism" [p. 229]. He is deeply impressed by apparent erudition in scientific fields he doesn't comprehend (such as James Doss's half-baked astrophysics and a bit of ersatz biochemistry). Even his literary connections are generally so superficial that they are meaningless, such as a Jake Page novel being "a modern variant of Sophocles Oedipus this time with a woman trying to slay her father" [p. 188]. No wait. Maybe it's a modern variant of Hamlet. Or Seneca's Thyestes. Or something. This one "pulsates with the deepest truths" and "dives into the bowels of existence," by the way.
He trivializes literature itself, both in his rhetoric and in his valuations of his stable of enjoyable but hardly first-string novelists. At one point he refers to the much-admired Stabenow character Kate Shugak, a young Alaskan native with a lot of chutzpah, as the best of her kind "since Al Capp's Mammy Yokum" [p. 215]; the comparison is as apt — and pointless, and glib — as one to Pam Greer or "The Bride" (Kill Bill). He carries on repeatedly about James Doss' "mysticism" and at length about Robert Westbrook's "mythology," by which last he means that one of the books begins on a mountain — Taos Ski slope, where the murder victim was boffing a ski instructor, thus somehow related in Browne's mind to "Mt. Olympus" [p. 198]. He spends half-dozen pages explaining how a truly not-memorable favorite novel of his — Jake Page's A Certain Malice — measures up impressively to Moby Dick. I like Jake Page, and I like his books, but he's no Herman Melville; heck, he's no James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, or Carol O'Connell. He's not even Tony Hillerman. Is that my wrong-headedness? Does it matter that Mr. Page, a sensible adult, would probably agree with me? It is not a matter of different tastes. Browne's preferences are founded on misinformation about Indians, among other things, and poor absorption of his own selected texts, as much as they are on bad taste.
It is clear almost immediately that Browne has no expertise with regard to Indian life or history, aside from having read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (and who hasn't?). Nor does he seem to have attempted to gain any, by reading, say, actual American Indian authors or scholars. And yet he has the temerity to propose that hacks like the Thurlos are "doing a great service" by "achieving a different and significant status for Indians." I can hear my moderate, educated American Indian friends murmuring, "With friends like these, who needs Gale Norton?" Some of Browne's writers are "doing service" (Coel, Hillerman, Perry), but the Thurlos are not among them. Not that Browne would know, one way or the other.
Browne's commentaries are riddled with inaccuracies about the Indians themselves. In his discussion of Jake Page's The Knotted String, he mentions that a movie is being made about the Pueblo Revolt, which he identifies as "a hundred years ago," which would be around 1890 or so. It was in 1680, a hundred years before the American Revolution. Three hundred years ago, plus a bit. He has James Doss doing research [p. 50] at the Ute's Uintah Reservation "in central Wyoming" (a bit distant from its real location in Utah) which he adds nonsensically is "the home of the Arapaho Indians about whom Doss's friend Margaret Coel writes" [i.e., the Wind River Reservation near Lander, Wyoming, which is indeed Coel's locale, but sorry, no Utes]. Having spent three pages discussing the Thurlo's novel about "the Tewa Indians" (Browne and perhaps even the Thurlos seem to be unaware that "Tewa" is a language, not a tribe, spoken at some of the Rio Grande pueblos), Browne moves on to the Ella Clah novels, "essentially about the same people, the Navajo of New Mexico" [p. 169] (and, incidentally, thus drags the Navajo Rez a couple hundred miles east). Similarly, he says of Dance Hall of the Dead that Tony Hillerman is "unusually passionate here in his study of Navajo lore" [p. 80]. Whatever that means, it can't help but remind one that the book is about the Zuni, and that the Navajos, namely policeman Joe Leaphorn, are peripheral to the "lore."
Browne's endorsements of his authors' ethnic credibility are, in a word, meaningless gibberish and pontification. He wouldn't know an Indian if it left treadmarks on his back. His favored authors — Doss, Robert Westbrook, the Thurlos — are utter, shameless hacks who deal in half-baked New Age romanticism, superficial clichés, and "When you've seen one, you've seen them all" ethnology. Browne is fine with that, though. At one point, he illustrates a point he's trying to make about Alaskan author John Straley's The Woman Who Married a Bear by summarizing a Hopi (Arizona) folk tale. Hey, they're both Indian, and both states start with 'A.' Never mind that he might have found something a bit more germane in the ethnology of the Pacific Coast tribes or even, say, Alaska, where the bears are bigger.
Never mind unfamiliarity with facts about Indians. The book is peppered with broad factual errors that border on illiteracy. Browne explains that prehistoric Clovis spear points date from "the Dinosaur age" of "ten thousand years ago" [p. 110]. He mentions that Homer is the "sightless hero" of the Iliad [p. 207]. At one point he compares a character's moral failings with "Judas" betraying Jesus three times before the cock crows. Judas? Peter? Pas difference!! At another, having explained what a bildungsroman is (a "coming of age novel"), he identifies Dana Stabenow's Breakup — not the first, but the seventh book in the Kate Shugak series — as a bildungsroman; frankly, lots of the bildung was done in the previous romans. He caps his argument with this observation: "Breakup is Shugak agonistes" [p. 123]. What Samson Agonistes (scarcely a "bildungsroman") or perhaps Sweeney Agonistes (ditto) has to do with bildungsromans, Aleuts, Kate Shugak, or the price of walrus tusks, he leaves us to cipher. One wonders if he knows that "agonistes" doesn't mean "suffering," which Kate does quite a bit of in the book, but "contending."
It is not merely rhetorical to wonder how a book this bad gets published. It helps to note that the actual publisher of the book is not the University of Wisconsin, but "The Popular Press," and it is "A Ray and Pat Browne Book." In other words, Professor Browne put on his publisher hat and decided that Professor Browne's book needed publication. A bit like Dick Cheney looking at all the candidates and deciding that by golly he himself was the best suited for the Vice Presidency. One wonders if the people of Wisconsin subsidized the publication, or Browne paid for it himself. This kind of vanity publishing helps give academics a bad name.
It is clear that no competent, objective editorial eye moved this work from manuscript to publication. Editorial errors and almost incomprehensible sentences are the order of the day. Madri Medawar's Tay-bodal is described — inaccurately — as "one of the most important persons among the Kiowa" [p. 50] and then a few sentences later — accurately — as "of the lower order of tribesmen." The paragraph goes on to detail Tay-bodal's complete lack of status. In a later discussion of Murder at Medicine Ladge he observes incomprehensibly, "Although she is just a little off the reservation of her usual subjects, Medawar makes this her finest piece of writing" [p 148]. I think he means that the action does not take place on the Kiowa reservation. Not surprising, since there wasn't one.
In discussions of Hillerman, Jim Chee's erstwhile girlfriend is variously identified as "Janet Page" and "Janet Pete." Browne identifies as a plot element of People of Darkness the idea that Jim Chee "wants [his white girlfriend] to become Navajo" [p. 82]. (What, he wants her to "convert"?) Browne inexplicably explains that the missing anthropologist in A Thief of Time, Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, is "Jewish," which is likely ("Friedman") but completely inconsequential to the novel, and then he somehow manages, in a page of plot summary, not to mention the Mormon family at the center of the story. He also misidentifies the criminal action at Bernal's dig as "pot hunting." And so on. His plot summaries are typically garbled, often beyond recognition.
Here's is a gully wumper of a sentence to try your teeth on, chosen almost at random [p 228]: "Deep River is complex and complicated with two flows of the water in opposite directions." I'll say. I can't resist another: "...Sometimes the white reader has a little trouble stepping with one foot into Indian mysticism while holding the other in white reality, but a pause and a little contemplation usually accomplish the trick" [p. 229]. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. How 'bout this: "Kate's boyfriend Jack turns up for a while, trying to have sex with the horny Kate but who is forced to postpone the encounter because of different circumstances." [p. 124]. Trust me; I read that one three times to make sure I got it right. All right, one more, a whole paragraph, then I'll quit:
Westbrook's second novel, Warrior Circle, is not as successful as the first, though it tries in thrusts to reach up toward the sky as Ghost Dancer had. It begins with a mythological-earthiness by having an introductory and leading character who stutters. Then later the group of wicked fake-Indians who are trying to rob the city try to reach their epiphany on the surrounding mountain peak but the book fails to reach the mythological triumph such efforts initiate through the development of the remainder of the story. [p. 200]
Yes, or no, I don't have a clue what that is supposed to mean. And I've read both Westbrook books. The thrusting puzzles me a bit.
It's also clear that Browne is stitching together a quilt of out-of-date reviews, and he hasn't even enough respect for his topic (or his readers) to bother to smooth the seams. Twice he refers to books as part of "a two-book series" and then goes on in subsequent paragraphs to discuss the third and fourth books in each "two-book series." His comments on Mardi Oakley Medawar's The Witch of Palo Duro [p. 147] were obviously written before the third Tay-Bodal book appeared. Similarly, having identified Death Walker as "the stronger of the two [novels] starring Ella Clah" [p 173], he goes on, on the next page, to provide a synopsis of "the third novel in the Clah series" and then moves to the fourth and fifth book. Seven are listed in the bibliography.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the book is its reliance on strangely alien plot summaries. Repeatedly I found myself reading what he says happens in a book I have read, and being unable to remember a good deal of it. Either that, or wondering if he is aware of the dangers of speed-reading. For example, he writes a paragraph describing the "mystical" hunt at the end of Thomas Perry's Vanishing Act in which he describes the quarry as "a mysterious being at least half supernatural," and one scratches one's head metaphorically over this characterization of a whitebread professional assassin with a high-powered rifle and no qualms about shooting women. The problem is pervasive. The synopsis of Hillerman's People of Darkness flagrantly misrepresents an important plot element [p. 81] as does that for A Thief of Time. But this is merely errors of fact. Errors of ignorance are worse.
He is ignorant not only of Indian culture but of the most basic facts of Western life. He pictures Gabe Dupré at the end of Wolf, No Wolf as "apparently not wanting [the released wolves] killed" [p. 157] when he heads out with a rifle and an armload of "fifty-pound wolf traps" to go after wolves released in one of the government's [legal] wolf repatriations. Browne is apparently unaware that "fifty-pound wolf traps" are leg-crushing clamshells seldom used by wolf-lovers on catch-and-release missions. Browne adds, gratuitiously, one of his strange pontifical summations, to the effect that Dupré's above-the-law, anti-environmentalist stance constitutes "speaking for all the people in the West"! His synopses of all Peter Bowen's books are similarly strange. Admittedly, I can't say I paid much attention during Bowen's posse comitatus hand jobs, but it is puzzling, not recognizing whole slabs of plot development here and there, such as the bizarre conclusion to Notches (the tasteful title of a book about a serial killer of women whom Dupré does in fact "catch and release").
Finally, it hardly seems worth mentioning that Browne's selection of writers to discuss is whimsical at best. He appears to be unaware of Kirk Mitchell, and he fails to mention Martin Cruz Smith (Nightwing, the precursor and possibly the inspiration for the whole "Indian mystery" genre). He devotes little time to Thomas Perry and neglects to mention him when Perry's work would actually support a point (such as Browne's commentary on the importance of dreams in Indian thinking [p. 239]). He is apparently unaware of the one absolutely defensibly American Indian mystery novel by an absolutely Indian author, Linda Hogan's Mean Spirit, though he devotes many pages to the work of her non-Indian fellow Oklahoman, Jean Hager. (Note: Thomas King's novel, DreadfulWater Shows Up, is too recent for inclusion.) Leaving out Mean Spirit is a bit like writing a book about whaling literature and failing to mention Moby Dick. He seems not to have read even his own authors' more current works; it's impossible to tell if this is because of publication delays after he finished the manuscript, but the bibliography brings some writers up to 2003. He's not even thorough in his cataloging of hacks, missing a few notable ones (including a pop culture icon) whom I will not identify again here.
He spends almost no time on Tony Hillerman, for Pete's sake, using the excuse that everybody knows about Tony Hillerman [p. 213]. He apparently quit reading Hillerman after A Thief of Time, the last book he synopsizes, though there are eight titles between 1993 and the apparent cutoff date in the bibliography, 2003. His bibliography itself doesn't even list the five Chee/Leaphorn books published between 1993 and 2003. He is much more interested in his writers themselves than in their Indian subject matter, so we get plot summaries of non-Indian author Dana Stabenow's series of Alaskan novels with non-Indian subjects, and a lengthy pseudo-intellectual "explication" of the mythic power of Jake Page's A Certain Malice. Sample sentence: "Mo [the non-Indian protagonist of Page's mysteries] is pitted against his Moby-Dick in the person of the demented Annie, his putative daughter." I dunno about Bowling Green, but out here, comparing somebody's daughter, "putative" or not, to a white whale is fightin' words. Sample exigesis: At the end of the novel a doctor mutters "Oh God," and Browne allows as how this is "again pointing to a religious interpretation." We can only wonder what it would have pointed to if the doctor had said, "Oh shit."
This book is an insult to its topic, and it should be an embarrassment to a self-respecting university press.
Want to see for yourself?
You can buy Murder on the Reservation at Amazon.com.
Read my own comments and recommendations for books that combine the mystery genre with American Indian characters and settings, "American Indian Mysteries: A Crossover Genre Not Quite There."