One of the really interesting developments we’ve seen in crime fiction in recent decades is the look the genre has given us at indigenous characters and communities. That’s not easy to do, either. It’s a challenge to create an indigenous character or explore an indigenous community honestly – without either glorifying its members and culture or condescending to them. When it works well, though, we get a fascinating perspective on unique world views and ways of life. We also get some very interesting and innovative characters.
As early as the 1930’s, Arthur Upfield showed readers the lives of some of the Aboriginal communities of Australia. His creation, Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte is a member of the Queensland Police Force, so his cases frequently take him into Australia’s Outback and quite often involve the indigenous people who live there. Bony himself is half-Aborgine and thoroughly familiar with many of the indigenous cultures of the area. That knowledge and Bony’s own background are helpful to him as he investigates cases. In The Bushman Who Came Back for instance, Bony solves the shooting murder of Mrs. Bell, housekeeper at the homestead owned by Mr. Wootton. As if Mrs. Bell’s death isn’t enough to upset Wootton, his ranch hands and his staff, Mrs. Bell’s seven-year-old daughter Linda has been abducted. All evidence is that a local bushman nicknamed Yorky is the murderer and has taken Linda because she was a witness. Bony is called in to find Yorky and Linda before anything happens to the girl. In the process of tracking them and of finding out what happened on the morning of the murder, Bony discovers that Yorky is not the only suspect. He knows though that to get the answers he needs, he will need to find the bushman. So he relies not just on what Wootton and the ranch hands tell him but also on what the local Aborginal groups can tell him. In the end, it’s that knowledge as well as the knowledge he has of the land and its rhythms that lead Bony to the truth about Mrs. Bell’s murder and about what happened to Yorky and Linda.
More recently, Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels depict the lives of the Aboriginal communities of Australia’s Northern Territory. Tempest is a half-Aborigine/half-White member of the Aboriginal Community Police. In Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) she returns to her home at the Moonlight Downs encampment after several years away. She’s no sooner home than she gets embroiled in a murder investigation. The leader of the Moonlight Downs encampment Lincoln Flinders is killed and his alleged murderer Blakie Japananga disappears. It all seems clear-cut at first, but Tempest isn’t sure that the obvious solution is also the correct one. So she looks into the case more deeply and finds that there was a lot more to Flinders’ death than it seemed. The same is true in Gunshot Road, in which Tempest solves the murder of prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins, who was supposedly murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel. In both of these novels, we see the way members of the Aboriginal communities in the area live. Hyland presents them – and Tempest – honestly and respectfully. I sincerely hope there’ll be a new Emily Tempest mystery soon.
Tony Hillerman depicted the lives of Native Americans – especially the Navajo Nation – in interesting, respectful and truthful detail. His Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are both members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and the murders they investigate often require knowledge of the Navajo Way in order to solve them. For example, in Skinwalkers, a series of three murders seems to be connected to the Bad Water Clinic run by Dr. Bahe Yellowhorse. That clinic combines Western medicine with Navajo healing traditions and although it’s done some good, there are people who are suspicious of what happens there. When Chee himself becomes the target of a would-be killer, Leaphorn knows he’ll have to rely on Chee’s knowledge of the Navajo Way as Chee is more traditional than Leaphorn is. Together the two discover what’s behind the murders and in the process we see the lives of those who live in the Navajo Nation. In fact, Hillerman received the distinction of being named a Special Friend of the Navajo Nation in 1987 for his treatment of that community in his work.
Margaret Coel presents the lives of members of the Arapaho Nation in her series featuring attorney Vicky Holden, who is Arapaho, and Father John O’Malley. The focus in that series is the Arapaho community of the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Neither Holden nor O’Malley is blind to the challenges faced by the indigenous people of that area. Coel is frank about issues such as alcoholism and domestic abuse on the Reservation as well as about relations between members of the Arapaho Nation and Whites. That said though, Coel treats the Arapaho people with respect and presents their lifestyles both honestly and in fascinating detail.
Peter Høeg introduced readers to half-Inuit Smilla Jasperson in Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Sense of Snow). In that novel, Jasperson meets a young boy named Isaiah Christensen – a fellow transplanted Greenlander. When the boy dies, allegedly after a fall from the roof of the building where both live, Jasperson comes to believe that he did not die accidentally. So she investigates the death despite all sorts of pressure to leave it alone. In the end, Isaiah Christensen’s death turns out to be related to two Danish expeditions to Greenland. Jasperson’s Inuit identity and her familiarity with her people’s culture prove to be very helpful as she looks into the case, and Høeg treats the Inuit people both respectfully and candidly.
Stan Jones does the same thing in his series featuring Nathan Active. Active is an Alaska State Trooper. He is also an Inupiat Eskimo, although he was given up for adoption as a baby and raised as White in Anchorage. Now he’s returned by assignment to the isolated area around Chukchi, north of the Arctic Circle. What’s interesting about this series is that Active arguably has to discover his Inupiat identity since he wasn’t raised among those people. So in a sense we see that community, at least at the start, “from the outside.” It’s an interesting process of discovery for Active and for the reader. And Jones treats the indigenous community to which Active belongs with dignity and respect, while still being candid about the people who live in it.
And then there’s Michael Sears’ and Stanley Trollip’s (writing as Michael Stanley) Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, a member of Botswana’s CID, whom we first meet in A Carrion Death. In this novel, a body is discovered in the Botswana desert. At first it seems that the victim died by accident; it’s been almost completely eaten by hyenas and there seems no reason to believe the death is from foul play. But Kubu isn’t convinced, and begins to investigate not just the identity of the victim but also how the victim actually died. Kubu finds that this death is related to family politics as well as the politics and financial dealings of the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company. In this series, Sears and Trollip treat Kubu and the local culture candidly, but at the same time, they are depicted respectfully.
When authors present indigenous characters (of whom I’ve only had space to mention a few) with that balance of respect and candor, the result adds much to crime fiction. Which are your favourite indigenous sleuths?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nightwish’s Creek Mary’s Blood.