Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the great benefits of reading crime fiction is the things we can learn and the opportunities it gives us to explore other cultures. There’ve been several crime fiction authors who have allowed readers to get to know a little about another culture. One of them is Margaret Coel, whose Wind River mysteries explore the Arapaho culture as well as the local culture of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Today, let’s take a closer look at the first of her Wind River mysteries, The Eagle Catcher.
This novel begins at a gathering of the Arapaho community for a powwow with food, dancing and socialising. Father John O’Malley, a Jesuit priest assigned to the local St. Francis Mission, has been invited to the powwow and is looking forward to it. He’s especially interested in this gathering because Arapaho tribal chair Harvey Castle asked to meet with him there. From the tone of Castle’s request, O’Malley has gotten the sense that Castle has something very important to discuss, and O’Malley wants to hear what it is.
When O’Malley and his assistant arrive at the powwow, though, Castle is no-where to be found. He doesn’t even show up for the beginning of the dancing, something that Harvey Castle simply wouldn’t do. O’Malley goes to the tent Castle has pitched on the powwow grounds only to find that Castle’s been shot. Bureau of Indian Affairs police force Chief Art Banner begins an investigation of the murder, as does FBI agent Jeff Miller. Their first, most likely suspect is Harvey Castle’s nephew Anthony. The two argued the night before the powwow, and it soon becomes clear that they were diametrically opposed on a few things. It doesn’t help matters that when the police go to the Castle home to interview Anthony, he runs off rather than talk to the police, and he’s soon arrested.
O’Malley is sure that Anthony Castle is not a murderer. So he calls Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden, who’s just returned to the reservation from a conference. O’Malley tells Holden what’s happened and she agrees to work with Anthony Castle. She too is soon becomes convinced that Anthony Castle is not a killer.
At first there’s not much to go on and there is strong evidence against Anthony Castle besides the argument he had with his uncle. The only starting places O’Malley and Holden can think of are that Harvey Castle was working on a history of the Arapaho people, and that he had disagreed with other members of the tribal council on a land deal being offered to the Arapaho people. So Holden and O’Malley begin to explore those possibilities. Each in a different way, the two of them get to the truth about how the history Castle was writing is related to the tribal council debate and to Castle’s murder. And in the end, and after another murder, they find out who really killed Harvey Castle and framed his nephew and why.
One of the most important elements in this novel is its context and setting. Coel shares with readers the daily lives of the modern-day Arapaho people and the Whites who live on and near the Wind River Reservation. What’s particularly noticeable about this depiction is that it’s not sentimental, nor is it one-sided. Wrapped around and woven through the story is the fascinating Arapaho culture, so we learn a bit about it. But not all of Coel’s Arapaho characters are “good guys,” nor are all of the White characters “bad guys.” Rather, they are a group of people who’ve worked to find a way to live together in that area. O’Malley, for instance, has learned to integrate some of the Arapaho ways into his spiritual services (and for the matter of that, his private spiritual life). The Arapahos, for their part, have adopted White ways that they’ve found beneficial.
There’s also an honest depiction of some of the challenges that these two groups of people have faced as they’ve tried to co-exist. There’s an honest discussion of prejudice (on both sides), alcoholism, domestic abuse, land-grabbing and other issues that both Arapahos and Whites have had to face. There’s also an interesting discussion of how the different generations view these issues.
Another element that is important in this novel is history. As O’Malley in particular tries to find out what Castle might have wanted to discuss with him, he looks for and finds some of Castle’s notes and the manuscripts for some of the chapters of the book Castle was writing. In that way, we learn a little about the story of how the Arapahos came to be, how they migrated from the U.S. East Coast and ended up on the Wind River Reservation. We also learn how that history ties in with Castle’s murder and the other murder that occurs. Rather than being separated from the modern-day mysteries as happens in some novels, the historical aspect of this novel is integrated into the story as O’Malley finds out more and more about what Castle’s research had uncovered.
The two central characters in this novel are Father John O’Malley and Vicky Holden, and Coel presents both of those characters as intelligent, caring, flawed and interesting people. O’Malley is a Jesuit priest from Boston who was sent to St. Francis after what he calls The Great Fall, his way of describing his bout with alcoholism. Readers who are tired of alcoholic characters need not worry, though; Father John doesn’t drink now and is working on rebuilding his life. He’s devoted to the Jesuit approach to logic and thinking and that mindset comes through as he works to find out who murdered Harvey Castle. For her part, Holden is an Arapaho who returned to the Reservation after law school and some time away because she is committed to helping her people. She’s divorced with two children and has her own personal demons. A survivor of domestic abuse, she too is an alcoholic who no longer drinks. O’Malley and Holden have a kind of mutual attraction, although neither says a word about it to the other. However, they both are well aware that they’ve got personal issues to face, to say nothing of the fact that O’Malley is a priest. Their attraction is evident in the story but neither dwells on it obsessively.
Some of the other characters in the novel are not as well-developed as O’Malley and Holden are. Many recur though in later novels and evolve as the series does. And it’s interesting to see how the setting and the relatively closed community affects the characters’ interactions. That aspect of the novel is quite authentic.
The solution to the mystery isn’t obvious although it does fall out naturally from the plot, and the pieces of the puzzle, so to speak, are there from quite early in the novel. The pace of the novel is moderate, so readers who prefer action-based novels will be disappointed. But the pace is exactly right for the kind of mystery this is. And both the pace and the solution are very appropriate fits for this particular setting and context.
An interesting mystery that’s a mix of past and present, The Eagle Catcher also introduces two complex and likeable characters and places readers unmistakeably in the beautiful country of west central Wyoming. But what’s your view? Have you read The Eagle Catcher? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 7May/Tuesday 8 May – Night Passage – Robert B. Parker
Monday 14 May/Tuesday 15 May – Ripley Under Ground – Patricia Highsmith
Monday 21 May/Tuesday 22 May – Never Apologise, Never Explain – James Craig