14 February 2008

Old mystery, new novel

I just finished Margaret Coel's latest mystery, The Girl with Braided Hair. (Thanks, Mary.)

I really like this one. Then you'll ask, "Why?" And I'll have to figure out why.

The characters are either better creations now or I've gotten used to them.

The plot is better put together than many of Coel's earlier books. But the liklihood of either a lawyer or a priest devoting much time to identifying a murder victim who's been dead for 30 years, seems really, really tiny.

(Coel could get around my incredulity if her characters, like Hillerman's, were tribal police officers or investigators.)

The relationships still don't work for me. An Arapaho lawyer (Vicky Holden), her Lakota legal partner and lover (Adam Lone Eagle), and a reservation Jesuit priest (Father John) make a lousy triangle.

Father John's connections with the people at the mission and the kids on his baseball team seem realistic. But, the Father John-Vicky Holden tension doesn't. The priest staves off the temptations of the woman in the same way he, as a recovering alcoholic, staves off the temptations of Irish whiskey. I guess I'd expect more prayers from the priest. And maybe more confessions to his priestly colleague at the mission or to his superior.

And Vicky Holden seems not to think much about the temptation of the man who is the priest and is really, really ambivalent about her romance/conjugal relationship with tall, handsome, logical, and successful Adam Lone Eagle. (If her ambivalence is connected to her attraction to the priest, she's more messed up than she otherwise appears.)

The backstory is set on the Wind River Reservation in the 1970s when the American Indian Movement was fighting and campaigning for civil rights. After the Trail of Broken Treaties protest that occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Washington, DC and the Wounded Knee takeover, AIM leaders and members were being pursued by the FBI and local law enforcement. According to Coel, many people associated with AIM moved to remote western reservations to avoid arrrest. The late 1970s were, according to Coel, a difficult time for many people on the Wind River reservation, both those who sympathized with and supported AIM, those who were opposed to the outside agitators, and those who just wanted to be left in peace. That was the context for a murder and coverup that became the plot of The Girl with Braided Hair.

Now, I look forward to other reactions to this book. Maybe Jana will have time to read this one and let us know what she thinks of Coel's new book.

But, please, write and tell a little bit of the world what you think.

13 February 2008

Jana Eaton on Margaret Coel

Well, I did send the books to my friend Jana back in 2002. They arrived at a time when she wanted some respite from thinking about her thesis and her defense. She read The Eagle Catcher and wrote us about it before going on to successfully defend her thesis and earn her doctorate. (Congratulations, Dr. Jana.) Here's what she wrote:

"Ken thoughtfully mailed me three of the Margaret Coel paperbacks.

"While the reading is a bit different from that I'm doing for my dissertation (curricular decentralization and sociopolitical stability in Dagestan, Sakha, Tatarsan and Bashkortostan), I thoroughly enjoyed The Eagle Catcher and am grateful to Ken for putting me on to Coel. While I'm not overly impressed with the character development or logic of the plot trajectory at times, Coel accurately depicts the Arapaho customs as I remember them.

"Having grown up on the Reservation as an Arapaho, the book really resonated with me. I've never felt more nostalgic for life on the Res., a place from which I couldn't wait to escape years ago.

"Coel did do her homework. In fact, I recognized a lot of the names in the acknowledgments, including a close friend, Scotty Ratliff. Scotty is a Shoshone (both the Shoshones and Arapahos reside on the Wind River Reservation).

"He introduced Coel to various people on the Res. and said in an email that he took her to the sweat lodge.

"The big change that I notice is the congruence of Catholicism with Native religious customs and practices. This was not so much the case when I was growing up. In fact, the Church backed the banning of the Sun Dance, as I recall. It is heartening to hear that the Church is now "Nativizing" its services and practices. Likewise, sweating was not widely practiced when I was growing up, but it is very popular today -- and very spiritual.

"Still, the problems on the Res. are daunting and pretty much the same -- rampant alcoholism, abject poverty, high unemployment, etc.

"By the way, there is no St. Francis Mission; it is really St. Stephen's Mission. Why Coel changed that name but retained the other place names eludes me. Also, she says all of the characters are fictional, but I recognized several "fictional" names that are the real names of Arapahos living there -- Oldmans, for example.

"Anyway, thanks so much, Ken (even if I haven't been this homesick in years!)."

Hillerman Imitator

Here's another import from ReadingOnTheWeb. It's from an entry I made in November 2002. I'm adding it because I just read the newest mystery by Margaret Coel and I'll be writing about it shortly. That and the other reactions to Coel's books I've written here gives a lie to my 2002 resolution not to read any more of her books.

Here's what I wrote in 2002:
While browsing in The Book Peddler in West Yellowstone, MT, I ran across a book that looked interesting: The Eagle Catcher by Margaret Coel.

If Tony Hillerman made a career of writing mysteries located on New Mexico's Navajo reservation, Margaret Coel seems to be making her career writing mysteries set on Wyoming's Wind River reservation. (In an interview she said that Hillerman was her inspiration.)

Coel was a reporter who wrote about Wyoming and Native history before turning to fiction. Her stories have been published in several magazines dedicated to mystery writing, but she's also been a "Career Achievement Nominee" in the Romantic Times Book Club.

Instead of centering her stories on a couple of Navajo policemen as Hillerman does, Coel's primary actors are a Jesuit missionary priest and an Arapaho woman lawyer who is conflicted about working for her people on the reservation or working on "big" issues in a large firm in Denver or Los Angeles.

The Eagle Catcher, published in 1995, was her first mystery novel. It's sold well, I guess. My copy was the 10th printing and there are four more Margaret Coel books advertised in the back.

Coel is a pretty good storyteller and offers some attractive characters who, like Jance's Sheriff Brady, have more going on in their lives than finding killers.

In the end, though, the people in her stories are unconvincing. A priest at a poor rural mission ought to be spending more time fund raising and less interfering with police work. And the hot shot lawyer whose legal brief is going to convince the Federal Appeals Court to set a precedent important to tribes all over the country really doesn't have time to pursue murder investigations in her spare time. The implausibility of "Murder She Wrote" rears its ugly head.

Coel does her best to make the dry grasslands of the Wind River reservation attractive, but she can't compete with Hillerman's rhapsodizing about the beauties of New Mexico's deserts. (Or perhaps I've had enough experience driving across the dry prairies of Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Montana not to romanticize them they way I can sometimes imagine the high desert.)

I finished reading The Eagle Catcher while sitting alongside the Firehole River on a gorgeous September afternoon in Yellowstone National Park. I liked it right up to the end despite its shortcomings. When the bad guy (a politician) gets zapped by Mother Nature's lightning instead of meeting secular justice, I'm disappointed. (If things worked that way, there would be few politicians left inside the beltway.) I couldn't have been that disappointed. On my way back through West Yellowstone, I bought two more Margaret Coel mysteries.

The additional books were The Spirit Woman and The Thunder Keeper. If The Eagle Catcher suggested that Coel's characters were not quite believable (in comparison to Jance's or Hillerman's); these books convinced me that Coel needs to work on plotting.

The stories are well told, but the stories left me really disappointed. I'm reminded of Dan Conrad's initial enthusiasm for Paula Cohen's Gramercy Park that cooled on further reading. Margaret Coel's stories are better read without thinking about them too much.

In these second and third books I read, the incredibility factor kept rising. Coel kept taking the shortcut of having her characters do things for very questionable reasons in order to move the story along. By the end of the third book, I wasn't sure I liked either of her main characters very much. I'm glad I read them, but I don't think I'll read any more of Coel's books. I'll send these off to Jana Eaton, who grew up in central Wyoming. If she has time while writing her thesis and teaching school, maybe she can escape to them. Then she can tell us what she thinks.

04 February 2008

Keeping murder within the family

My sister-in-law Mary, one of my primary suppliers, gave me some books for Christmas. I finally got around to reading one of them: Three Sisters, A Charlie Moon Mystery by James D. Doss. [That's him below at a book signing for an earlier Charlie Moon mystery.]

Thanks, Mary.

My reactions to the book were mixed.

Since Mary is one of three sisters, I thought there might be some symbolism in the title. I hope there wasn't. I didn't get very far into the book to realize that I was lucky not to marry into that literary family.

I thought the basic plot was interesting, but getting through the story telling was difficult for me. Doss kept commenting in asides about the story, and he did it as the writer outside of the book. Douglas Adams did some of the same kind of commenting in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, but it wasn't so obtrusive. And Adams was writing about really weird things that needed commenting on. Now murderous husbands and wives are rather weird, but not as weird as Vogon demolition fleets and two-headed Galactic Presidents.

Oh, but see, now I'm off the track of what I wanted to say about Doss' distracting asides. Ah, but that's the point, isn't it? And Adams was writing humorous science fiction, not a Serious murder mystery set in southern Colorado.

In the middle part of the book, there weren't as many asides and I liked reading it more than I had at the beginning. But, then, in the final fourth of the book, disclosures came more and more quickly; events were more and more quickly related. I had been reading leisurely through most of the book and suddenly revealing facts popped up and I had to pick up the pace of my reading to keep up with the rapidity of the story telling. I don't think that anyone gave Doss a limited number of pages in which to tell his story, but it seemed like he was in a rush to finish.

Some of the best parts of the book were the buddy scenes in which Charlie Moon and police chief Scott Parris hang out and be friends. I think I could read a plotless book about those two guys taking a road trip.

Oh, and I did enjoy reading about Moon's aunt, Daisy. She's an ancient character who is a hoot. I don't know if I'd like to spend much time with her, but I did like hearing Doss tell stories about her.

All in all, it was a pretty good book. If anyone else reads this and has a reaction, add it here by using the Comments link at the bottom.

02 February 2008

Protest Literature

In an attempt to raise the quality of literature mentioned here and transfer some of the best of the old ReadingOnTheWeb to this venue, I dug up this oldie. I wrote this in another lifetime (in June of 2001).

Back in the strange times of the 1960s, I had an inspiring teacher of Russian history. Russian politics were as mysterious then as they are now; the stakes don't seem quite so high these days (though they probably are). I got intrigued with Russian literature and then with Soviet literature and then with dissident literature. (I even tried teaching myself the Russian alphabet so I could hear the poetic words of Babi Yar.)

The protest literature was wonderful: full of allusions and analogies and insiders' jokes insults and attacks.

It was a window into a world of large and petty injustices, absurdities and tyrannies. And, in spite of being a creative sign of life and hope, the books seemed to express hopelessness--the hopelessness of the individual pitted against totalitarian government, true believers, and culture. (The Cancer Ward comes to mind just now.) Even the funny ones were depressing (The Fur Hat, for example.)

Well, I got back into that "world" when I read Zhang Jie's As Long As Nothing Happens Nothing Will.
  • The stories may be about China in the 1970s and '80s.
  • Zhang Jie (a 60-year-old writer who sacrificed literature for the country and Party by studying economics, and who was sacrificed by the Party and country during the Cultural Revolution and who didn't begin writing until the 1970s) may be a popular Chinese novelist.
  • She may have won "China's most prestigious literary award" [book jacket blurb].

But she's writing exactly the same kinds of stories the Russian dissidents did.
  • There's the peasant village artisan whose craftsmanship entrances a wealthy tourist from the Philippines. When she invites him to Manila for an exhibit of his work, he becomes the toast of the provincial town near his village--until the invitation falls through.
  • There's the story of the "free" cat and its "unfree' master.
  • Another about the struggling doctor whose invitation to a medical seminar to learn surgical techniques is transformed by the machinations of politics into a trip to England for the hospital's Party cadre.
  • And when an timid-but-critically-thinking professor does get to go abroad, his bladder infection makes it impossible for the Party chaperone to keep track of both him and the rest of the group.

The stories bring to mind Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil."

They suggest also something from Kathleen Norris: the smaller the community and the stakes, the more vicious the infighting.

The worst part was that the stories kept reminding me of school.

See also: Zhang Jie