Thursday, November 23, 2017

Crime Fiction by Native Americans; or, Tony Hillerman Will Only Be Mentioned Once

By David Nemeth

I know it is quite white of me to be writing about Native Americans on Thanksgiving Day, but trust me, it’s either this or writing about Turkey cozies or making up a book list of Pilgrim Noir. No one wants me to do that. As Winona LaDuke recently wrote, “There is this magical made-up time between Columbus Day (or Indigenous People's Day for the enlightened) and Thanksgiving where white Americans think about native people. That's sort of our window. November is Native American Heritage month. Before that, of course, is Halloween. Until about three years ago, one of the most popular Halloween costumes was Pocahontas. People know nothing about us, but they like to dress up like us or have us as a mascot. We are invisible.” Yeah, I am pretty much guilty as charged. Hopefully, I will come back to Native American crime fiction at several points throughout 2018.

When I started looking into Native American crime fiction my Bing searches always came back with works by Tony Hillerman. Craig Johnson, Margaret Cole, etc. This Goodreads list, Popular Native American Mystery Books is a sad example of the problem. I only counted one Native American author with only a few titles in a list of over 130 books. I’m not stupid, this was not the list I was looking for.

After some searching, I came across Mary Stoecklein’s dissertation “Native American Mystery, Crime, and Detective Fiction”. This paper was the key for me to opening up a world of works by many Native American crime fiction writers, many who I had not heard of. What I’m trying to do in this post is to add some crime fiction books by Native American writers to my To Be Read list. Will I miss some? Most likely. But I hope it will be a good first attempt at collecting some authors and titles of books we all might want to read. Please also note that the Indian Nation(s) of the author appears in parenthesis after their name. They have been mainly culled from Stoecklein’s paper, author's websites, or Wikipedia. This is all followed by the book title, publisher and year of publication.

Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene), Indian Killer (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996)
The New York Times’ Richard Nichollls said of Alexie’s Indian Killer, “It's difficult not to make Indian Killer’ sound unrelievedly grim. It is leavened repeatedly, however, by flashes of sardonic wit, the humor that Indians use to assuage pain. (For Indians, Mr. Alexie notes, ''laughter was a ceremony used to drive away personal and collective demons.'') It's also difficult not to make the novel seem more angry than reflective. But Sherman Alexie is too good a writer, too devoted to the complexities of a story, to settle for a diatribe. His vigorous prose, his haunted, surprising characters and his meditative exploration of the sources of human identity transform into a resonant tragedy what might have been a melodrama in less assured hands.”
Louise Erdrich (Anishinaabe), The Round House (Harper, 2012)
The Round House, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2012, is the middle book of Erdrich’s acclaimed Justice trilogy which includes The Plagues of Doves, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and LaRose, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2016. At NPR Alan Cheuse wrote, “I've devoted many hours in my life to reading, and among these hours many of them belong to the creations of novelist Louise Erdrich. In more than a dozen books of fiction – mostly novel length – that make up a large part of her already large body of work, Erdrich has given us a multitude of narrative voices and stories. Never before has she given us a novel with a single narrative voice so smart, rich and full of surprises as she has in The Round House. It's her latest novel, and, I would argue, her best so far.”
Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfeet), The Least of My Scars (Broken River Books, 2013)
I’m choosing this Jones book out of the many because it’s on one of my favorite publishers Broken River Books. Other crime fiction by Jones include All the Beautiful Sinners and Not for Nothing. In Out of the Gutter Gabino Iglesias wrote, “Jones is a master storyteller regardless of genre, and his skills are in full display here. The prose is feverish and seems to push the narrative forward at 100 miles per hour. Billy, whose voice makes him a likeable character despite being a psychotic murderer with a taste for torture, appears to be a somewhat reliable narrator, but his mental state clouds everything in mystery and the few surreal touches Jones adds sporadically keep the reader guessing until the end. Also, the narrative walks a fine line between a superb horror story and one of the darkest noirs published in 2013.”
Martin Cruz Smith (Yaqui-Senecu del Sur), Stallion Gate (Random House, 1986)
Yeah, I didn’t know either. Smith is known for his Arkady Reno books set in Moscow, most famously Gorky Park The Amazon description reads, “In a New Mexico blizzard, four men cross a barbed-wire fence at Stallion Gate to select a test site for the first atomic weapon. They are Oppenheimer, the physicist; Groves, the general; Fuchs, the spy. The fourth man is Sergeant Joe Pena, a hero, informer, fighter, musician, Indian. These four men -- and a cast of soldiers, roughnecks and scientists -- will change history forever.” . Stoecklein also points us to another Native American themed book by Smith, Nightwing.
Louis Owens (Choctaw/Cherokee), Bone Game ( University of Oklahoma Press, 1996)
From the Encyclopedia of American Indian Literature, "Although a sequel, Bone Game stands as an independent text whose meaning is enriched by knowledge of its antecedent. When readers meet Cole McCurtain, a mixed-blood Choctaw professor of Native American studies, he has recently relocated to the University of California, Santa Cruz, from Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico. This setting becomes a character in its own right, offering Owens a means of critiquing contemporary New Age attitudes about indigenous people, academic desires and limitations within the field of Indian studies, and, significantly, the haunt- ing legacy of the bloody colonial history of Spanish missions in California.
McCurtain’s initial experience in Santa Cruz in1993 coincides with a series of gruesome murders in the Monterrey Bay area, which sets the region on edge. This third-person narrative, significantly focused on Cole, becomes both a murder-mystery thriller and a spiritual mystery simultaneously. Readers discover how the spirit world gives voice to ignored past injustices and is mistaken as a cause of the ongoing episodes of violence.

Marcie R. Rendon (White Earth Anishinabe), Murder on the Red River (Cinco Puntos Press, 2017)
At the StarTribune Ginny Greene wrote, "In her debut mystery novel, Marcie R. Rendon, a member of the White Earth Anishinabe Nation, casts us into the stark world of Cash, a pool-playing, Bud-swilling, Marlboro-smoking wisp of a thing. Cash has dark braids down to her butt and an aloof, independent air that plays well in the bars but doesn’t help her future." One Amazon reviewer wrote that it is "the best debut novel I've come across since Ben Whitmer's Pike."  
Erika T. Wurth (Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee), Buckskin Cocaine (Astrophil Press, 2017)
I am unsure whether Wurth's collection of short stories is crime fiction but it seems a close fit from the book's description saying that "is a wild, beautiful ride into the seedy underworld of Native American film. These are stories about men maddened by fame, actors desperate for their next buckskin gig, directors grown cynical and cruel, and dancers who leave everything behind in order to make it, only to realize at thirty that there is nothing left. Poetic and strange, Wurth's characters and vivid language will burn themselves into your mind, and linger. "

Frances Washburn (Lakota/Anishinaabe), Elsie's Business (Bison Books, 2006)
Stoecklein’s  writes, "Reviewers of Elsie’s Business have observed some of the ways in which the novel simultaneously embraces and subverts conventions of the mystery, crime, and detective genre. For example, in his review, Peter Grandbois states: “In flirting with the mystery genre, Washburn subverts it, refusing to solve either of the mysteries” (155). Rather than solving the mysteries, as Grandbois notes, “the reader soon realizes that there are no answers to questions such as murder and identity” and that “What matters is that the story is passed on. It is enough that the narrator hears Elsie's business, that we hear her story” (Grandbois 155).
Tom Holm (Cherokee/Muskogee Creek), Anadarko (University of Arizona Press, 2015)
Frances Washburn writes, "Like a master juggler, Holm tosses up one plot line after another, spins them in dizzying circles, then one by one, resolves them to an ending that not only satisfies but also provides yet one more surprising plot spin." The description of the book says, "Anadarko, a small bootlegger town in Oklahoma’s Kiowa Country, shakes off its sleepy veneer when J.D. Daugherty, an Irish ex-cop turned private eye, and Hoolie Smith, a Cherokee war veteran, show up to investigate the mysterious disappearance of oilman and geologist Frank Shotz. J.D. and Hoolie find their simple missing person case hides a web of murder, graft, and injustice tied to a network of bootleggers with links to the Ku Klux Klan. Set in the aftermath of the violent Tulsa race riot of 1921, Anadarko reveals a deadly and corrupt town filled with a toxic cocktail of booze, greed, and bigotry."
Katherena Vermette (Métis), The Break (House of Anansi Press, 2018)
The description of this upcoming release: "When Stella, a young Métis mother, looks out her window one evening and spots someone in trouble on the Break ― a barren field on an isolated strip of land outside her house ― she calls the police to alert them to a possible crime. In a series of shifting narratives, people who are connected, both directly and indirectly, with the victim ― police, family, and friends ― tell their personal stories leading up to that fateful night. Lou, a social worker, grapples with the departure of her live-in boyfriend. Cheryl, an artist, mourns the premature death of her sister Rain. Paulina, a single mother, struggles to trust her new partner. Phoenix, a homeless teenager, is released from a youth detention centre. Officer Scott, a Métis policeman, feels caught between two worlds as he patrols the city. Through their various perspectives a larger, more comprehensive story about lives of the residents in Winnipeg’s North End is exposed."
As I said earlier, I know this list is incomplete and I have further research to do. Beyond Stoecklin's paper and the aforementioned Encyclopedia of American Indian Literature, Stoecklin also pointed me to the following books about Native American literature: Louis Owens’ Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel, Gina MacDonald’s Shaman or Sherlock? The Native American Detective, Antoni Giovanni Idini’s Detecting colonialism: Detective fiction in Native American and Sardinian literatures, and Ray B. Browne’s Murder on the Reservation: American Indian Crime Fiction.

Another cool thing I happened upon is NDN Lit, a bi-weekly newsletter "filled with links focused on indigenous literature and culture." Steve Dragswolf, editor NDN Lit, also maintains a great companion Twitter feed, @NDNLit.

If there are any problems with this article, please reach out to me on Twitter, @nemski, or email, david.nemeth@gmail.com.

9 comments:

Lesa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lesa said...

Linda Rodriguez is half Native. She wrote the Skeet Bannion mysteries featuring a female cop who is half Cherokee.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Thanks, Lesa! Also, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe has published three Native mysteries with her 4th about to launch. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

David Nemeth said...

As I said in the article, "Will I miss some? Most likely.' The more recommendations in the comments the better.

Kait said...

David, thank you for writing this post. You've added to my TBR.

I'm so glad Linda Rodriguez is mentioned in the comments, her Skeet Bannion is a wonderful character, and now she has added Sara Sue Hoklotubbe to my TBR.

Mysti Berry said...

One of my favorite Native American writers is Deborah J. Ledford (Pushcart Prize nominee). Her thrillers are not to be missed.

Sharon Bell Buchbinder said...

Has anyone come across any Crow Nation crime/suspense authors? I've read all of the "dictated" biographies by Linderman, et al, and Alma Hogan, Beautiful Blackfeather's grand-daughter, but have not come across any novels, per se. Would LOVE to find more. Thanks!

Sharon Buchbinder

Not really said...

There is also: David and Aimee Thurlo co-authors of the Ella Clah series, the Lee Nez series of Navajo vampire mysteries, and the Sister Agatha novels. Her other works, co-written with her husband, David, include "Plant Them Deep", a novel featuring Rose Destea, the mother of Ella Clah. James D. Doss was the creator of the popular fictional Ute detective/rancher Charlie Moon. Our Native American Dorothy Black Crow who wrote The Handless Maiden: A Lakota Mystery

Susan Oleksiw said...

This is a wonderful contribution for those of us who like to read outside our culture. My TBR pile is huge now. Thanks, and I hope you add to this list.