The genre has attracted a couple of serious writers with Native American backgrounds, notably Linda Hogan and Louis Owens. They know writing, and Indians, and myth, but they don't seem to have read much mystery fiction, so the effect is a bit like an opera singer trying to do MoTown. And the legendary (one is tempted to say "mythic") Chicano writer, Rudolfo Anaya, has adopted the genre for his own explorations of contemporary New Mexico, with embarrassing results.
Leslie Silko, one of the premier American Indian writers, has used mystery/adventure elements in her first two novels, Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead, although they are essentially mainstream works, not "detective fiction." In Ceremony a key plot line is examining a series of violent crimes, ending with a murder, and Almanac of the Dead ties together drug trafficking, human organ theft, the smuggling of illegal immigrants, and Mafia involvement in Arizona real estate deals in a great lumbering beast of a plot, mythic and apocalyptic. Likewise, Louise Erdrich () and her late husband, Michael Dorris, collaborated on a novel with a mystery theme, The Crown of Columbus, that is, I'm afraid, no jewel in the literary crown of this queen of midwestern writers (Love Medicine, Tracks, The Antelope Wife, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse). Blackfeet novelist James Welch () has not written any 'mysteries' per se, but his The Indian Lawyer is an extremely good novel that revolves around crime and criminals, with a protagonist whose service on the Montana Parole Board entangles him with a fairly dangerous criminal. It is a highly recommended book by an under-recognized American talent. I have posted annotated bibliographies of Welch and Erdrich.
Poet Linda Hogan's Mean Spirit is a classic example of a mystery written by a writer who doesn't read mysteries. It simply isn't in genre, however singular its merits. Clearly Hogan set out to write about the crimes committed against the Cherokees after oil was found on the rez. That would have been, I think, a good novel. But for some reason, she decided to try to make the book a murder mystery, and you can't just "make it so."
Genre-bending is not a bad thing. It is part of the evolutionary process, and good fiction should not use the demands of the genre as excuses for flaws. But a symphony is not a guitar duet, and it takes a rare talent to make Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from the Ninth work as a dulcimer solo. Read it anyway for a good picture of Oklahoma Indian country during the decade when Will Rogers was wowwin' 'em in New York while white entrepreneurs were marrying and murdering any Oklahoma Indians with claims to oil land.
For a real treat, read her other novel, Power.
Academic publishing is a strange subset of the book world. On the one hand, the university presses serve as a place to find books that lack a popular market but have merits of their own, like Frederick Manfred's last novels (Flowers of Desire, No Fun on Sunday, Of Lizards and Angels). On the other, they become the outlets for academic writers whose merits can only be "appreciated" by their fellow arbiters of true intellectual wonderfulness, a kind of artistic incest all the more ugly for its air of self-importance. A classic example of the abuses this latter attitude promotes is the appallingly bad "vampire novel," The Eye Killers, by "American Indian author" A. A. Carr, a book whose only reason for existence is that someone decided it was being ignored by the mainstream press because they couldn't appreciate a real Indian writer. It was being ignored because even minorities can write trash.
Louis Owens' literary career, truncated by his tragic death a few years ago, is a good example of the perils of academe. Owens was the protegé of a professorial con man named Jerry Vizenor, a Chippewa journalist who has parlayed an idiosyncratic style larded with pompous, portentious neologisms, some study of the chic scholarly ether called deconstruction, and a Native American pedigree into the role of primo American Indian intellectual. (Vizenor is the "advisor" to the series that gave us A. A. Carr's opus.) Owens was a good scholar and critic, and his discipleship to Vizenor a bit embarrassing, a bit like learning that James Lee Burke admires, say, Patricia Cornwell or James Doss.
In spite of his merits as a scholar, Owens' fiction is far too self-conscious and "literary" to satisfy the unprejudciced reaser, classic examples of what happens if the writer is more interested in being worthy of academic regard than he is in telling a story. His first novel, Wolfsong, about logging in Oregon, was published in the University of Oklahoma American Indian Literature and Critical Studies Series — Vizenor's baby — with enthusiastic encomiums by fellow professors. Since then, all of Owens' publications have been with that press, except for reprints and the mass market mystery, Nightland (reprinted by Red River Press).
He is the author of a two-volume murder mystery (The Sharpest Sight and Bone Game), novels too muddied up with Choctaw mythology to move fast, and trivialized by their detective story elements – thus, the worst of both worlds. I listened one night to Owens as he apologized at a reading before an academic audience for his one mainstream mystery novel, which he confessed he "wrote for money." Ironically, the same gathering was about to celebrate the award of their highest literary honor to the unabashedly "philistine" and altogether more satisfying Tony Hillerman. Nightland has the same problem as the other books. What begins as a murder mystery turns quickly into a fictionalized dissertation on Cherokee legends. There is a sad irony in the fact that a novel Owens' was vaguely ashamed of currently has a home with one of the more discriminating public publishing houses. Dark River was Owens' last novel.
Owens' scholarship, on the other hand, is excellent. If you want to read about American Indian literature, the place to start is his books: Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel and Mixedblood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place.
The Very, Very Special
The success of Indian Killer led me to write a one-sentence review: "With so many white people getting rich by pretending to be Indian, it's only fair that an Indian should." Why? What have I got against that nice boy from Spokane? And what does a movie poster for Jeremiah Johnson (not just starring Robert Redford, but directed by Sidney Pollack, from a novel by Vardis Fisher and a screenplay by John Milius and Edward Anhalt; lots some pedigree) – possibly the best Western ever made, and certainly one of the top ten and worth seeing again, right now – have to do with the contemporary genius who gave us (Thank you, Sherm! Thank you!) Smoke Signals (a purportedly very good movie he contributed to) and Pow-wow something or other, over which he had creative control and in which idealistic white do-gooders get the beatings bad white Indian haters so richly deserve? Click on Why? to learn this and more. Or just go buy Jeremiah Johnson (available in VHS, DVD, and widescreen VHS), and enjoy.
Before the extended exercise in "What is he doing here?" that I'm about to do with Michael McGarrity, I'd like to mention a few books with Indian connections that are otherwise outside this genre. The best of them is, without any argument, James Lee Burke's brilliant Black Cherry Blues. If you haven't discovered Burke (), do so at once. His Dave Robicheaux novels are set in Louisiana, and the Edgar-winning Black Cherry Blues
The novels of Steve Hamilton – A Cold Day in Paradise, Winter of the Wolf Moon, The Hunting Wind, and North of Nowhere – have as their protagonist a white detective, Alex McKnight, living near a Chippewa reservation in northern Michigan. The first two use reservation casino gambling as plot elements. The second novel puts the Indian elements more at center stage, focusing on a young woman from the reservation who becomes involved accidentally in a drug deal. And Hamilton's protagonist is an intelligent, interesting mix of knowledgeable sympathizer and stupid white man. He receives a powerful lesson in Indian values as the second novel rolls to its conclusion. Unfortunately, Hamilton abandons some of the engaging elements of the series in The Hunting Moon, and the result is disappointing. The fourth novel, North of Nowhere, relies too much on overused themes of the earlier book, like McKnight's bad relationship with the local police chief, and the plot develops un some unlikely directions, with a solution that is very unsatisfying.
One final novel you might not stumble upon that is worth looking at is John Sandford's Shadow Prey. Second of the Lucas Davenport "Prey" novels, which have become a solid and interesting series, it takes as the central action a small, AIM-like organization's elaborate scheme to destroy the vicious Indian-hating thug running the FBI. Said bad guy is totally fictional, of course; in no way is he related to South Dakota political celebrity William W. Janklow, who never raped that fifteen-year-old Indian girl, Jancita Eagle Deer, at gunpoint when he was a legal aid worker at Rosebud and she was his "ward," and never colluded with the FBI to railroad Leonard Peltier when he was South Dakota Attorney General or, when he was elected Governor of the state with the motto, "Racism? Bull pucky; they're just Indians, for Cripes sakes!" to censor Peter Matthiessen's brilliant investigative report on the Wounded Knee whitewashes, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, which was pulled from circulation and destroyed within months after it was published, then reissued nearly a decade later after the Janklow/FBI complaintants lost their "defamation" suits against Matthiessen. And sure, he did sort of kill that white guy by running over him at a stop sigh at 55 mph, but he was in a hurry and very important at the time.
Setting up the crime involves sending dedicated assassins to murder a string of anti-Indian oppressors – a slum lord, a brutal parole officer, a ward heeler, the Attorney General of South Dakota (WTF!? Coincidence, really, and his name is not at all "Janklow"). Sandford plays on the facts of the Leonard Peltier/Second Wounded Knee situation very effectively. The then Attorney General of South Dakota, Bill Janklow, who built his career around fueling South Dakota anti-Indian racism, had been accused of raping an underage Indian girl. He was never prosecuted; the girl, Jancita Eagle Deer, unfortunately "died" before she could testify against him. Janklow's vicious stripe of racism touched the hearts of South Dakota voters. Like Larry Clay, the fictitious pedophile rapist who rises to head the FBI and has his eyes on the Presidency, Janklow parlayed his Indian-hating into career boosts, landing in the governor's mansion, then sailing to Congress and only halted when he killed a white man (oops) while speeding and drunk. Janklow's official site had a special page "just for kids."
The hatred within the FBI for Indian people, as virulent today as it was thirty years ago and a staple of most mystery/procedural fiction with an Indian slant, has its hottest source in the incident at Wounded Knee, which resulted in the deaths of two FBI agents (along with a handful of unrecalled Indians, one of them was shot while wearing a Red Cross headband and assisting a wounded man). You might say that Janklow and the FBI were a gang rape made in Heaven.
The Prey series is good in itself, but Shadow Prey is an unusual entry in that it is about a political crime rather than a psychotic serial killer. The Crow brothers bear a certain resemblance to historical AIM religious leader Leonard Crow Dog. They are well-rounded, sympathetic Indian figures, unlike the typical "Prey" villains (The more typical villain role is filled by their psychopathic son, Shadow Love, who uses their murderous crusade as an excuse to kill some non-political victims.) The fictional FBI chief made a hobby of raping drunk Indian girls when he was a street cop in Phoenix, and the Crows have been after him ever since. They catch up to him when he goes out for his favorite dish, a ten-year-old girl procured for him by a pimp.
Sandford makes a powerful political point by letting Lucas see that the mainstream Indian community of Minneapolis, people he likes and respects, are unwilling to help bring the murderers to what Davenport would call justice. The good Indians of Minneapolis are not so sure they want to help the cops catch the vigilantes who have been murdering the enemies of Indian people. The book demonizes Indian activism a bit, but overall the picture is the sort of balanced view that is likely to offend true believers on both sides. An excellent book, informed about its politics and the realities of urban Indian life, and with no axe to grind.
McGarrity, like Anaya, is not really writing on American Indian subjects; his connection to Hillerman is the locale, the state of New Mexico. Between them, he and Thomas Perry (with a nod to upstart Kirk Mitchell) are the logical next writers to move on to after you've finished with Tony Hillerman's books. Go to Perry for the Indian themes, McGarrity if what attracts you is the Southwestern venue. McGarrity is a true local, a retired Santa Fe police officer, not a Southwestern parvenue like J. A. Jance, and his books reflect the unique character of the region accurately and use the place effectively. (Jance's books could be, without much jarring, relocated to her other venue, Seattle. That said, she is a more satisfying writer than McGarrity.)
McGarrity's protagonist, Kevin Kerney, is a former Santa Fe cop whose life went into a tailspin when his partner accidentally shot him. The series begins with him "getting back on the horse." Like Dave Robicheaux, Kerney is an interesting person in his own right, and the mysteries all build his character while taking us through various murderous puzzles. McGarrity is no James Lee Burke (but one is probably enough), and Kerney is romanticized and flattened, in comparison to the compelling characters of first-rate fiction. But he essentially a believable and engaging character, and McGarrity's plots are realistic and his settings nicely detailed.
The series begins with Tularosa; Kerney is approached by Terry Yazzie, the former partner, to help find Terry's son Jimmy, who has disappeared from a military base and been declared AWOL. At the base, Kerney teams up with Sara Brannon, an intelligence officer also investigating the case, and they turn up a plot to steal historical artifacts worth millions and a connection to the Latin American drug trade. Kerney and Brannon become lovers and eventually (a few novels later, Hermit's Peak) marry.
The next novel, Mexican Hat, finds Kerney working as a forest ranger in the Gila Wilderness. The romance with Sara Brannon has been short-circuited by her transfer to Montana, and a local attorney, Karen Cox, becomes a new love interest, even though her family is suspected in a mysterious murder in the hills nearby. An old Mexican has been murdered, and the investigation turns up an injustice decades old. Poaching, illegal immigration, and dubious land claims weave together as the mystery unfolds.
In Serpent Gate, the third book, puts Kerney back in police uniform, hired by his old boss, Andy Baca, to investigate the murder of another cop in Mountainair, New Mexico. This small-town killing connects suddenly to a major-league art theft in Santa Fe and a high-society murder, and McGarrity brings back a Kerney nemesis, Mexican Mafioso Enrique DeLeon, who figured in Tularosa. Kerney goes back to Juarez to track down DeLeon, and the action is fast and furious.
Kerney's ambition has been to replace the family ranch his father lost decades ago (his connection to Tularosa), and in Hermit's Peak he inherits a six-thousand-acre spread near Las Vegas, New Mexico. Exploring his new property, he finds that timber has been poached from the back canyons and, worse, a woman has been murdered on his land. Soon he is embroiled in two murders, both of the them connected to the property. The harsh reality of taxes on all those acres and the discovery of a rare cactus near the clearcut also feed into the story. And Sara Brannon is back, ready to sort out their relationship. Not the best Kerney novel, by any means. The various plots are not woven together very well, and the excuse is not that McGarrity is mainly interested in the romance; Sara actually wanders off for about a third of the book, to "get her head together" in Tucson. A strong, emotional finish is marred by the disjunctive plotting.
The Judas Judge finds Kerney and Brannon married and his plans for retirement thwarted by a spree killing that connects to his own past as a police officer. It's a strong entry, although the issues pedophilia, child abuse, dysfunctional families are not good ones for a writer who specializes in procedural novels.
The next novel, Under the Color of Law, is worth a miss. It tangles together the paranoid Libertarian fantasies of a spy novel with some unbelievable coincidences, and the result is a bit embarrassing. McGarrity himself describes the book as "a departure." One can only hope he comes home soon; and that he will resist the urge, tantalizingly exposed in the last pages of the book, to continue in this overmined vein.
The Big Gamble swings the thematic pendulum the other way. Where Under the Color of Law is a Ludlumesque spy thriller with more high-placed bad guys that Gordon Liddy ever imagined, The Big Gamble gives us not one but two case study procedural walk-throughs. It is about as exciting as a training manual. One must hope that McGarrity will find his stride in the next book in the series. The middle road is best.
I'm a few books behind on McGarrity, and unashamed. The last one I read (Slow Kill, I think) was so tediously narcissistic that I finally just quit reading them, much less buying them. This is to take nothing away from the quality of the early books. But McGarrity has begun to identify way too much with the macho and heartthrob wonderfulness of his hero – both of which he oversetimates – for my taste. It's a bit like watching a guy comb his hair in the mirror: not a spectator sport.
A couple of new arrivals in 2006 deserve mention. The first is D. W. Linden, whose debut novel, Sand Creek, tells a contemporary story that weaves together the Sand Creek Massacre and the 1973 Wounded Knee/AIM siege. The jacket is a bit vague about Linden in one respect, carefully skirting the issue of his racial background but linking him to the National Indian Youth Council and the American Indian Movement. Internal evidence suggests that he is not Indian, but that he was a sympathetic participant in both organizations. The fact that he's not Indian doesn't especially bother me; the deceptiveness of the jacket does, though.
And the jacket's "little white hypocrisy" bothers me all the more because Linden is an evangelical minister who in other respects takes his calling pretty seriously.
Now, that's a world I kind of miss never living in, but I like my fiction a bit more extreme: if it's about the real world, then I expect people to behave like the folks I share the planet with behave (and if it's a fantasy world, I expect to see a bit more imagination). That by way of establishing my prejudices before I comment on the book itself.
It's not bad. Somebody is ritually killing white women to memorialize famous massacres of Indians, and the evidence points, with some wavering, to the narrator's best friend Char, an Indian with some dark connections to AIM and Wounded Knee. An FBI agent thinks Char was present at the killings of two agents, as a matter of fact. The hunt is converging on Sand Creek and Char's girlfriend, whose grandfather owns the land where the Reverend John Chivington sent the souls of 600 Arapahoe women and children to Hell (at least, that was the assumption; were I a Christian, I would think Colonel Chivington got a bit of a surprise when he himself arrived at the Pearly Gates).
This is the sort of novel where the suspense is sustained by our uncertainty about the author rather than the plot. A polished writer might have made Char's guilt or innocence inevitable in ways that interested us. As it is, we never doubt his innocence, simply because he is a praying, reformed alcoholic. We never quite believe he's the killer, and when we do, it's because we aren't sure if Linden realizes how unlikely that is in the world he has invented.
I read Sand Creek in an evening. Given that experience and the synopsis of Linden's second novel, Second Son (a "historical novel set in 19th century Southwest"; the son of a Spanish nobleman is raised as an Indian, etc.") I'll pass on that and on the further adventures of Sheriff John Hart.
Unlike Linden's publicist, Craig Johnson's was not allowed to hint coyly that Johnson was Indian on the jacket of Death Without Company. After a rocky start (Johnson is very educated, and the narrator overwrites like a creative sophomore until the plot gets really interesting), this is a satisfying second novel. A Basque woman dies in a seniors' home, and the geriatric ex-sheriff who originally hired the narrator as his deputy insists that she was poisoned. We know he's right (it's a murder mystery, after all), but nobody else believes him.
Yup, he's right, and by the end of the book we've worked through a handful of suspects and come up with a surprise that may be delayed a bit too much. In other words, Death Without Company is a fun read, a bit slow in the wrong places (the beginning and the end), and promising.
Why? Because Johnson has a good sense of plot, if not the greatest timing. The crime is interesting and intriguing, and the solution satisfying and surprising. And more than that, because he has a solid grasp of the diverse cultures of his region. Ultimately all but the more clever mysteries hinge on giving us characters we believe in and care about. D. W. Linden fails at this, and Sand Creek never engages me. Johnson convinces me that his cast is real Wyoming people with real lives, and I read on.
It's a diverse cast: Cheyennes and Crows, Basques and Chicanos, an Italian cop from Philadelphia, an old sheriff straight out of John Ford, a handful of average folks getting by in a small town. Longmire's best friend is a Northern Cheyenne, Henry Standing Bear, who is neither a cliché nor a stereotype, and Basque culture (and language) plays a central role in the action. The book is full of solid continuing characters, and the newest, a hunky Basque cop, develops nicely as the story progresses. On the down side, foul-mouthed but "handsome" police officer Victoria Moretti is not as charming as Johnson thinks she is, and Longmire's unfulfilled love life is extraordinarily unfocussed (he is probably, or maybe not, falling for four different women simultaneously), one of whom is a ghost. Two others just sort of disappear from the forestage like blown smoke. But these are quibbles.
The murder of Marie Baroja draws together Basque history and the injustices to Indian people, modern greed and a half-century-old crime of passion. Reflecting on the novel, it's easy to imagine that Johnson admires the work of James Lee Burke, master of the genre. All the elements of a great Burke novel are here: the multi-generational link of two crimes, the mystic/supernatural thread, the good but less-than-perfect hero and his moral and spiritual baggage. It's all a bit cautious, though, and that may be a virtue. Burke's novels are filled with violence no less distressing because it is believable, and the books strike some as a bit "over the top." I doubt if anyone will ever level that charge against Craig Johnson.
Johnson knows and respects his Indian neighbors, and he has the basics of good mystery fiction under control. I'm looking forward to more.