Where We Have Lived Since the World Began*

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.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, Margaret Coel, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Peter Høeg, Stan Jones, Stanley Trollip, Tony Hillerman

25 responses to “Where We Have Lived Since the World Began*

  1. Fascinating, Margot. I’ve desperately been trying to think of examples as your post contains all the ones I first thought of! There is The Black Path by Asa Larsson, about the Sami in the far north of Sweden – or rather, one young woman in particular, but there is also some family background putting the Sami in context. And on a similar-ish theme, Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida. Again, in the frozen Canadian north, there is Melanie McGrath’s White Heat. Several of Deon Meyer’s books feature African tribal nations and their ability on the land, particularly in tracking animals. But I think your examples are great, and wide-ranging.

    • Maxine – Why, thank you 🙂 – And thanks for mentioning The Black Path. That’s one where the Sami culture comes more into focus than it does in some of the other novels in that series at least in my opinion. Folks, I really do recommend Åsa Larsson’s work. I’ve not yet read the Vida although I intend to do that. You’re quite right about Deon Meyer’s work too; he weaves in several indigenous communities and their traditions. And what I like about both his work and that of Harsson is that they treat the indigenous people with respect and candor – not an easy balance to strike.

  2. Margot, as you know, I thoroughly enjoy the Bony mysteries of Arthur Upfield. In addition to the ones you mention, may I recommend “The Bone Is Pointed,” in which Bony’s life is threatened by the Aboriginal belief that an enemy can be killed by the ritual known as “pointing the bone.” Upfield put his knowledge of Aboriginal customs and beliefs into most of the Bony books; it’s a pity that only a couple are still available.

    I haven’t read any Tony Hillerman, but I’m fascinated by what he tries to do with Navajo life and beliefs, as you mention. I will certainly add some of his books to my ever-teetering TBR pile.

    Les Blatt

    • Les – Thanks for recommending The Bone is Pointed. I was actually hoping you would comment since you are an Upfield fan. He really did have a marvellous way of integrating Aboriginal traditions and customs into his stories without making that obvious, condescending or “overkill.” I agree it’d be great if more of them were easily available.
      As to Hillerman, I have to confess to being biased. I truly do admire Hillerman’s work and part of the reason I do is his ability to share the life of the Navajo Nation with readers, again without being obvious or condescending. I like protagonists too. It’s not hard for me to wish them well because although they’re of course flawed as we all are, they’re good people. I hope you’ll get the chance to try some Hillerman.

  3. Margot: You have listed my favourites!

    A recent book I read with an Aboriginal theme was I’ll See You in My Dreams by William Deverell which deals with Arthur Beauchamp’s defence of an Indian man in 1962 and circumstances involving the trial in 2012.

    Another day we can discuss the use of the words Indian, Eskimo, Aboriginal, Native, Indigenous, Metis ….

    • Bill – That would be a really interesting discussion! The words that communities use to describe themselves and the words others use to describe them are fascinating. I’m very glad too that you mentioned William Deverell – I’ve had I’ll See You in My Dreams on my TBR for a bit and I must read it.

  4. Interesting post, Margot, Like Maxine, I didn’t know much about the Sami region at the top of Scandinavia until I read the books of Asa Larsson. I haven’t read all the writers in your post so I have a few to look out for. I used to love Tony Hillerman and I love Adian Hyland’s books.

    • Sarah – Thank you 🙂 – I’m glad you found it interesting. Larsson’s books have taught me a lot about the Sami people, too and their community. And I have been an admirer of Hillerman’s work for years; he had such a skilled way of depicting the US Southwest and its people. He had real writing talent too. And yes, Adrian Hyland’s novels are superb.

  5. kathy d.

    Very good topic. I’m sure that there will be many more books about Indigenous peoples, including more by writers from Native nations and peoples, as readers want to read their stories.
    I agree about Adrian Hyland’s books featuring Emily Tempest. He really captured the feel for the land, culture, customs and more of the Indigenous peoples of Australia.
    I want to add into the mix Nicole Watson, author of The Boundary, a quite intriguing book, with many layers to it. Watson is a member of an Indigenous people in Australia, and her writing is very revealing about the discrimination and oppression suffered by Native people in her country. It’s also very heartfelt.
    Malla Nunn, who grew up in Swaziland, and whose family was subjected to the apartheid laws — and then moved to Australia — writes an excellent series set in 1952 South Africa. She discusses much about the customs and culture — and mistreatment and abuse — of the African peoples who were the original inhabitants of the country.

    • Kathy – Oh, I’m very glad you mentioned Malla Nunn. I’d meant to include a bit about her and didn’t so you’ve filled in the gap I left. I’ve not yet gotten a chance to read The Boundary although I’ve heard it’s good. I will have to look out for that one. It sounds like one of those books that stays with the reader. I hope you’re right too that we’ll see more from Indigenous writers as the years go by – there’s a treasure trove of potentially really absorbing stories there.

  6. kathy d.

    Oh, and I think William Deverell was very good in his exposition of the mistreatment, abuse, discrimination, and oppression faced by Indigenous people in Canada, especially children, who were torn from their homes and forced to go to authoritarian, punitive, sadistic, racist boarding schools. The Native people are portrayed in positive lights.
    R.J. Harlick writes also of Indigenous peoples in Canada. A River Runs Through It does get into many Indian customs and spirituality, respect for the ancestors.

  7. My reading material has been very narrow and that is something I have really noticed since reading your blog. I love American crime fiction and since joining Twitter specifically, there are more and more authors that I have been trying, but there are still not enough hours in the day to read, so I have to hang my head in shame and say I have not read anything like these books, but I really would love to. They sound like they have an extra something to them. I hope I can buy and read at least one of these by the end of the year. That has to be feasible right?

    • Rebecca – No need at all in hanging your head. No-one has time to read all of the terrific crime fiction there is out there. Even if there were a lot more hours in the day there’d still never be enough time. I know exactly the challenge you face…

  8. kathy d.

    I, too, feel torn between global and U.S. crime fiction. While the library, friends and purchases have gotten more global mysteries to me — and I now have more piles of books than ever — U.S. books still call out to be read. I just saw a big city bookstore’s list of new mysteries and then an Arizona store’s list also — and I am bowled over. I see so many books that I want to read! But I’m committed to read globally; it’s so enriching! So I have a book each here about South Africa, India and Brazil, and a Canada-phile friend just brought me four (!) books on Canada. And I didn’t even pick up my reserves at the library. Oh, gosh, we really need those extra hours in a day to read, or to have a clone to read for us or figure out how to read while showering, sleeping, talking on the phone, etc.
    But, I have no complaints. It’s all good! Whatever keeps people reading is good; spreading out one’s focus to international books even better.
    I feel like my task is now to involve friends in reading global books — and not only Nordic noir, which they gobble up, but a good sampling of far-reaching mysteries.

    • Kathy – I think your underlying point is so well-taken! When people are encouraged to read, that per se is a good thing. I agree with you about the advantages of reading crime fiction from around the world, too. In my opinion, there are few better ways to really get a sense of other places, other people’s viewpoints and so on. I like to do that too, and it sounds as though you have quite a few terrific books from all over the place. I’m sure your friends have a better perspective on books just from that example.

  9. kathy d.

    Correction: R.J. Harlick’s book’s title is “The River Runs Orange.” She has written several other books which include information about Indigenous peoples in Canada.

  10. This post made me realize how mainstream my reading has been. I guess the farthest I have ventured is Stieg Larsson.

  11. Wonderful article. A favorite writer of mine for getting to the old South Africans is James McClure. A great series.

  12. Pingback: But When the Wrong Word Goes in the Right Ear* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s