August 12, 2007

Review of The Spirit Woman

The Spirit WomanFrom Library Journal

The wary attraction between Father John O'Malley and Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden reignites when the two team up to unravel a mystery involving the famous Native American heroine Sacajawea (The Lost Bird). Twenty years earlier, the Wind River Reservation was the site of Sacajawea researcher Charlotte Allen's disappearance. Now, Father John's dog has unearthed what might be the young historian's remains, while Vicky's college friend Laura Simmons surfaces, seeking the elusive and historically significant Sacajawea memoirs alluded to in Allen's journal. When Laura herself disappears, leaving behind disturbing clues at her rooming house, Vicky and Father John fear for the safety of anyone who gets in the killer's path. Meanwhile, Father John wrestles with resigning himself to a mandatory transfer off the reservation he has grown to love. Intriguing Arapaho and Shoshone history and realistic treatment of contemporary Native American issues make this cozy sixth installment in the series a winner.

Vicky and Father John on a cold case, April 20, 2007
By S. Schwartz "romonko" (alberta canada)

This book actually has three mysteries intertwined in the story. First is the 20 year old skeleton that Father John finds buried at the mission. Second is the age-old mystery of what actually happened to the Indian scout Sacajawea, and third the disappearance of Vicky's friend who goes missing while she is researching Sacajawea on the Windy Hills Reservation. I love the tales about Sacajawea, so was anxious to read this book. I did find the mystery a little predictable, but as always, I really enjoy Father John and Vicky, and I also enjoy all the wonderful Indian lore that is placed throughout each book.

Save For A Rainy Day, August 24, 2001
By Carol Bardelli and Jerry Bardelli (Silver Springs, NV USA)

A rambler with historical overtones, The Spirit Woman is set on a Wyoming Indian reservation peopled with vaguely familiar and rather sedate characters that leave a reader wondering whose cookie cutter Margaret Coel borrowed to cut them out. No genuine surprises in plot or character come to the reader's rescue to convince you these are real people with real problems. The book has the feel of a formula mystery, just well crafted enough to be mildly entertaining, yet hindered by the writer's unwillingness to get off the fence and pull out all the punches. The plot is a little too respectable, plodding through correct mental, social and historical territory as if the author is afraid to offend. You'll find no flamboyant, action driven main characters like Stephanie Plum or Kinsey Millhone here. Main characters Father O'Mally, a recovering alcoholic, and Vicky Holden, a divorced Arapahoe lawyer, are likeable enough, but come across as humorless and powerless. Their progress through the book is chiefly emotion driven and interesting at times. But the characters lack the necessary appeal of flesh and blood people and the plot has few twists or unpredictable events that could have elevated this novel into a superior read. The book's strong point is the setting, the landscape and weather managing to steal the show. Reminiscent in the style and pace of an English cozy mystery that's been transplanted to the modern American west, it should be a moderately satisfying read for Tony Hillerman and Agatha Christie buffs alike. But fans of fast paced suspense by the likes of Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich and Elmore Leonard may find The Spirit Woman tedious at best. Good enough for a Rainy Day, but if it falls out of your beach bag you probably won't mourn the loss.
Rob's review:  As usual, the comments I've chosen sum up what I consider the book's strengths and weaknesses. An English "cozy" transplanted to the rez was my take on it too.

I guessed the villain of the story as soon as he appeared. That isn't always a problem, but in this case the protagonists and police seemed slow on the uptake. They didn't realize the crimes were connected until almost the end. Real detectives (e.g., Joe Leaphorn or Harry Bosch) repeat the mantra that there are no coincidences.

I've read one other mystery by Margaret Coel: The Ghost Walker. It was okay but nothing special. I gave it a 7.0 of 10. I've already forgotten what it was about.

The Spirit Woman initially has an edge. It sets up three storylines that you think will pay off big:

  • Vicki Holden, Laura Simmons, and an Arapaho woman are in abusive relationships just like Sacagawea was. Who will get beaten (or killed)? Who will stand by her man or leave?

  • Father John is being transferred. Of course he'll end up staying, but how?

  • The unspoken love between Father John and Vicki seems to be reaching a boil. Will something happen before they run out of time?

  • Unfortunately, these storylines end with a whimper, not a bang. There are no real fireworks or shocking surprises. Much of the book is spent looking for people who are off-stage: the mysterious Toussaint, then Laura, then Vicki. Even when the villain reveals himself and threatens to kill people, you aren't worried about the outcome.

    Although the payoff wasn't as good as I hoped, The Spirit Woman is better than its predecessor and much better than Tony Hillerman's The Sinister Pig. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

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