Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels have encouraged similar work (or inspired copycats, if you like), but none of the "Indian mystery" writers, so far at least, has managed to brew the mix of culture, geography, and good story that makes the Chee and Leaphorn books work. Instead we have had mysteries set in Indian Country, mysteries with Native American protagonists, even mysteries with ersatz American Indian supernatural monsters: everything from American Indian writers slumming in the mystery genre to mediocre writers trying to catch a ride on the bandwagon.
The mystery genre has attracted a number of American Indian writers. A case could be made for Leslie Silko's Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead as examples, like James Welch's The Indian Lawyer and Louise Erdrich/Michael Dorris' The Crown of Columbus. If I think a book might appeal to the mystery reader with an interest in American Indians, even though they are not true to genre-type, I've discussed it in the "Oddments" section. Silko, Erdrich (), and Welch () are the best of the American Indian writers, all three of them, for my vote, among the best writers in American today.
Murder on the Reservation
In a word, the book is a self-indulgent farrago of bad scholarship and poor judgment. It is not strictly speaking a "University of Wisconsin" book; it is "published" by something called "The Popular Press," as "A Ray and Pat Browne Book." Now the that sort of series designation is usually meant to suggest that the named sponsors are editorial managers of the titles, and Ray and Pat Browne are highly qualified to select popular culture studies for publication.
Coincidentally, though, this book is by Ray B. Browne, as are 25 of the hundred-odd other books under the imprint. With humility reminiscent of Dick Cheney, Professor Browne apparently has trouble finding writers more worthy of publication than himself.
You might think, by the way, that the press imprint refers to the "popularity" of the books; in fact, the series is books on Pop Culture, a field in which Mr. Browne is apparently eminent. Eminence does not excuse vanity, however, nor can it take the place of actual expertise. On the subject of American Indians, Browne has none.
Murder on the Reservation would never have been released by a press that used competent, objective scholars to review the manuscript. It is the kind of incestuous vanity publication that gives academic bookselling a bad name. Buy at your own risk.
You won't find a lot of recommended writers here, even among those I've managed to read more than one book by. Literary genres in their infancy are unlikely to create first-rate writers. But there are a few gems, like Thomas Perry, Martin Cruz Smith, Kirk Mitchell, and Mardi Oakley Medawar. The "Oddments" section features a handful of writers like Linda Hogan and Michael McGarrity who either (like Hogan) are Indian but haven't quite fit into the genre or (like McGarrity) are not so much writing on Indian themes as placing their work in the Hillerman setting. Regarding the rest of these writers, I will try to be accurate and even-handed, and to provide guidelines for those whose tastes or interests are different from mine.
Sadly, this is yet another genre where quality is beaten out by good marketing. A case in point, the "Shaman" franchise is rolling along, with James D. Doss cranking out his schlock in annual doses, while Medawar's Tay-bodal series has recently been dropped from her publisher's web site list of mystery grinders, and Mitchell, if standings at Amazon.com are any indicator, is not selling either.
For another list of mysteries with Indian connections, try this one, provided as a service of the Santa Fe Public Library, in New Mexico. It is singularly unjudgmental, lumping together anything that might have survived a keyword search on "Indian" and "mystery," including obvious hack work by authors cashing in of a trend (Brian Garfield and Mercedes Lackey) and serious fiction (Louis Owens), but missing obvious choices like Robert Westbrook and Linda Hogan. And its information is a bit unreliable; Mardi Medawar's Kiowa Tay-bodal is identified as "Cheyenne," for example. I've let my prejudices show in my own selections, but then, I'm not a public servant.
Taking all factors into account, two writers deserve pre-eminience in this field after the runaway leader, Tony Hillerman. The first is Thomas King, a Cherokee author and literary scholar who has written what one can only hope will be the first in a series of mystery novels with an American Indian protagonist and a thoroughly detailed and accurate American Indian milieu: DreadfulWeather Shows Up. King's mainstream Indian novels are humorous, magical, and well worth finding; he is the author of Medicine River, for example. Thumps DreadfulWater promises to be a unique addition to crime fiction. In terms of accomplishments, the only writer with work comparable to Tony Hillerman's Navajo series is Thomas Perry, an English professor and mystery writer originally from the Rochester/Buffalo area of western New York, near the Seneca reservations. There are other writers of equal talent, but none of them has the combination of subject matter and genre mastery that makes the work of Perry and King stand out from the pack. Other exceptional authors who mine the genre effectively are recent entry Kirk Mitchell, anthropologist Margaret Coel, and Mardi Oakley Medawar, whose Tay-bodal novels are, in a word, unique.
The detective is a Cherokee, Thumps DreadfulWater, an ex-police officer from California with a haunted past (his lover and her child were slaughtered by a serial killer who was never apprehended) and a preference for photography over detection. The venu is a fictional reservation on the Montana/Canada border.
King is a considerable literary talent and a natural comedian. The DreadfulWater world is as amusing as Carl Hiaasen's surreal Florida, without the unsettling savagery. And the picture of contemporary Indian life and politics is informed, accurate, and valuable. Highly recommended.
For more on Thomas King, try my American Indian authors.
Perry writes with a sureness of detail and a kind of intellectual integrity that keep the Indian material believable, and he is also a first-rate storyteller with other novels to his credit (Metzger's Dog, which is out-of-print but usually available secondhand, is a personal favorite of mine, and The Butcher Boy, his debut thriller and also out-of-print, won the Edgar). If setting and contemporary culture are the warp Hillerman weaves on, for Perry the foundation is history. The Iroquois Confederation, that centuries-old government Franklin and Jefferson modelled with the U. S. Constitution, is a living thing, a community Jane Whitefield, his protagonist, draws upon. Her vocation, protector of the weak, is a traditional Seneca role, and she is allied, in her own mind, with her ancestors against traditional forces of evil.
The first Jane Whitefield novel, Vanishing Act, was published in 1995. Since then, Jane has appeared in roughly a novel a year. It is a measure of her popularity and success that Perry has tried to dump her twice (the plots of both The Face-Changers and Blood Money involve taking "one last case") and has been compelled to continue the series. She is a wonderful character, as strong as Carol O'Connell's Kate Mallory but without the demons.
Perry's novels are full of violence and death, and the moral universe of his stories does not flinch at vigilant action. Jane kills six men in Dance for the Dead, two of them by poisoning. The key premise of the books, that she must remain anonymous and thwart extremely resourceful and dangerous enemies, leads almost inevitably to such a world.
Note: A review of Shadow Woman quoted in Amazon.com mentions that Jane was introduced in Thomas Perry's Sleeping Dogs. I'm practically certain this is not true. Sleeping Dogs is the sequel to Butcher Boy (out of print). These two novels are about a brilliant anti-hero, a contract hit man not dissimilar from the James Martin character in the first Jane Whitefield novel, but there is no connection between the two series other than authorship.
Jane Whitefield arrived with a bang. In the opening scene of the first novel, Vanishing Act, she humiliates (and hospitalizes) a professional bounty hunter while helping a woman escape from an abusive husband. That is what Jane Whitefield does: Disappear people who need to vanish. A combination of knack, education, and experience, her profession is unique and, it would seem, unlikely to sustain a half dozen novels. While the plots are a bit formulaic, Perry manages to ring new variations in each story. The first novel is my favorite, because it spends so much time establishing her Seneca background and because the plot twists are brilliant. I just read it for the second time, and knowing how everything will resolve gives the story new ironies.
Here, she helps an attractive ex-cop disappear after he is framed for embezzlement. She gets too involved with the man and as a result makes mistakes that get a couple of people she cares about killed, notably Harry, the two-bit gambler she disappeared early in her career. Harry's ghost haunts the rest of the novels, at once a symbol of her failure and guilt and an embodiment of the supernatural element that helps her explore the crimes and dangers she faces. Investigating the murder of Harry and her forger friend who makes identity papers for her clients, she discovers layer upon layer of things that aren't what they seem. The novel ends with a chase through the North Woods (northern New York State) that puts Jane intimately in touch with her heritage and tests every skill she has developed.
Jane Whitefield novels are nothing if not fast starters and Dance for the Dead is no exception. Jane is bringing a boy to court to prove he is not dead, and the last mile is a gauntlet she barely survives. The boy is heir to a huge fortune, but he was kidnapped as an infant. The organization managing the trust would find it convenient for him to be dead, and most of the people who care about him die keeping him alive. The novel weaves this plot with the main story, about a young con artist who stole a great deal of money and then was unable to protect herself from people who want to steal it from her. Mary Perkins is one of Jane's more ambiguous clients, a crook who, despite her insistence to the contrary, is still profiting from her crimes. It is only when Jane discovers that the man chasing Mary is the man who masterminded the attack on the boy that she commits fully to helping the woman.
In true Seneca fashion, Mary finds redemption in confession and suffering. Jane uses the "moccasin underground" to whisk her out of sight, and then faces the mastermind alone in a conclusion that plays effectively with the problem of Jane's vulnerability and exposure. The final pages pull the two stories together at the Tonawanda Reservation, at the annual Dance for the Dead. This novel begins to explore the relationship with Carey McKinnon, the doctor Jane will eventually marry.
There is a moment in the first few pages of Shadow Woman when Jane has incapacitated a thug and left him lying in an elevator with a broken leg. Gamely, he grabs her ankle as she steps out of the elevator, his hand snaking through the closing doors. She says, "Think. If you drag me back in there alone with you and your broken leg, are things going to get better for you, or worse?" He lets go. One of Jane's most endearing traits (well, Carey would call it that) is her almost flawless judgment. She seldom is indecisive, never excessive. She could have killed the man in the elevator. But it was unnecessary.
Jane's client is a womanizing Las Vegas executive who gets on the wrong side of his mobbed-up bosses. Jane disappears him in a dazzling series of sleights-of-hand added to a famous magic show in Vegas, and then she goes home to her new husband, Dr. Carey McKinnon. But a few months later a pair of bounty hunters find the executive, and after he escapes through some lucky accidents, he reaches Jane. She must come back and move him again. The result is a great chase through the Rockies, from Denver to Montana. And after Jane faces down one of the meanest adversaries she's ever had to deal with, she comes home to an invasion that nearly costs her Carey.
In Shadow Woman, Jane is married to Carey and she has retired after giving him a graphic example of the consequences of her chosen profession. The Face-Changers takes off from a typically ironic Perry situation: Dr. Carey McKinnon finds himself in need of his wife Jane's services. A colleague and mentor, a surgeon, has been framed for a murder, and Carey asks Jane to take this "one last case," to save the old man. Jane succeeds in getting her client out of the clutches of the police, and then the plot complicates in a number of ways: She learns that a gang of con artists have taken up her profession and her name, with the difference that they fleece their clients and then kill them. Jane must track them down, and doing so requires posing as "herself" to rescue a client from them (she pretends to be the fake Jane...).
Like all the Jane Whitefield novels, the plot twists and turns like a rabbit's flight from a dog. Ultimately, the threat is not only to her clients and their friends but to her and Carey, as the trail of the killers winds closer and closer to home. This is not a favorite of the series, but like the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, each book has its irresistible appeal. Here, the double cross, when Jane pretends to be the fake Jane so that she can spirit a victim away from the killers, is wonderful, and the reversals at the end, with villain after villain not dead after all, will set your head spinning.
The latest Jane Whitefield novel Blood Money takes up a hint from an earlier book and turns it into an opportunity for a rollicking farce. Stuck with a teenage girl who manages to track her down while running from mob killers, she has no choice but help her. Rita, it turns out, was the housekeeper for "an old guy" who was the Mafia's primary money-launderer, Bernie Lupus. A day after he disappeared, she found herself at the center of a storm of activity as a gang of thugs working for mob boss Frank Delfina tries to find Bernie. She escapes from them and makes her way to Jane. When Jane takes her back to her hotel, they learn that Bernie has been murdered and then, a few minutes later, that the death was faked. A man dies, Jane hauls Bernie and Rita out of town, and together they concoct an absolutely wonderful assault on the mob.
The book has its share of desperate moments and action, but it is essentially a comic novel for all that. As Bernie says at one point, explaining that the mob is less dangerous than one might think, "If they're looking for a pile of hundred-dollar bills and happen to see a kid with a nickel in his hand on the street, they'll stop to get the nickel. Then they'll fight over the nickel." Briefly, the capos come together to try to stop Bernie and Jane, who are disappearing their money. In a sequence of events reminiscent of the "Jack the Giant Killer" tactics in Sleeping Dogs, they end up killing each other.
Note: Perry may have finally retired Jane for time and all eternity. His recent novels, Death Benefits (January, 2001) and Pursuit (December, 2001) are not Jane Whitefield items. The second story has the feel of a new series, so we may have to bid a sad farewell to Jane as Perry moves on to other interests.