September 06, 2008

Review of Wife of Moon

Wife of Moon (A Wind River Reservation Mystery) (Paperback)From Publishers Weekly

Bestseller Coel surpasses her own high standard in her 10th whodunit (after 2003's Killing Raven) to feature Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden and Father John O'Malley. An exhibit of Edward S. Curtis's early 20th-century Plains Indians photographs has attracted a lot of visitors to the museum of St. Francis Mission on the Wind River Reservation. When someone shoots to death a descendant of a tribal chief shown in one of the Curtis pictures and the museum's new curator disappears, there could be a connection to a murder committed in 1907 on the rez. Meanwhile, Father John's assistant is preparing the mission for a visit from Wyoming senator Jaime Evans, who may soon be announcing his presidential candidacy and who proves to have a family link to the tell-tale Curtis photo. Handsome attorney Adam Lone Eagle steps from the shadows and resumes his pursuit of Vicky, who is still trying to come to terms with her fatal attraction to Father John. Stir in a crazed ex-CIA operative, and you have a hint of what awaits you in this action-filled page-turner. Coel draws readers into early Arapaho life as smoothly as she brings them into the sinister goings-on at present-day Wind River, masterfully blending authentic history with an ingenious plot.

Vintage Coel, September 26, 2004
By Karen Potts (Lake Jackson, Texas)

Margaret Coel writes an intriguing mystery which is based on the photographs which Edward Curtis took of the Plains Indians in the early 1900s. Curtis recreated battle scenes by hiring Indians to dress like their forefathers and relive scenes from the past. During one of these photo sessions an Arapaho woman is shot and killed. Her Anglo husband testifies that he saw three Indians murder his wife. With this as a background, the book shifts to the present-day Wind River Reservation, where an Arapaho woman is found dead. Father John O'Malley and Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden discover a connection between the Curtis photographs and the recent murder. Their investigation threatens a politician who is running for Senator and who advocates mining the natural resources on the reservation. As usual, Vicky and Father John grapple with their feelings for one another as they attempt to solve the murder and to do what is right. This is an altogether satisfying mystery which gives the reader a look at history and a feel for the Arapaho culture.
Comment:  A century ago, Edward Curtis may have photographed a crime. The original glass plates may still exist. If they do, they're potentially valuable and incriminating. They're almost worth killing for.

An intriguing premise, no? Well, Wife of Moon may be the best Coel mystery I've read so far--by a slight margin. That means it's a good mystery, not a great one. It's about as good as a typical Hillerman mystery.

Read the reviews on to learn why it's good. I'll tell you why it's not great.

  • Curtis supposedly captured a murder in progress when he staged and photographed a raid on an Arapaho village. A few problems with this:

    1) I don't think Curtis's camera was fast enough to catch galloping horses. I checked my Curtis book and only a few photographs show Indians in (relatively slow) motion: on trotting horses or in gliding canoes. There are no reenactments of raids, especially not ones with people racing through a village.

    2) Curtis was on a slope overlooking the village when he supposedly took the pictures. The figures would've been too small to distinguish.

    3) Curtis had to change plates between exposures. The crime would've been over before Curtis could take a second photo, much less a third.

    4) Most important, the text specifically says the murder occurred inside a tipi. Unless Curtis was in the tipi also, he wouldn't have seen anything.

    Oops. This flaw doesn't ruin the story, but it's a nagging annoyance. It's an ongoing reminder that you're reading a work of fiction contrived by a research-laden author.

  • Father O'Malley and the readers quickly learn that the grandfather of a potential presidential candidate was involved in the 1907 murder. O'Malley dances around this fact for much of the book before deciding it's relevant. Hello? Hasn't anyone read or seen a mystery before? If a powerful politician is anywhere near the scene of a fictional crime, even if it's a century old, you can bet he's involved somehow. Otherwise, why include a powerful politician in the plot?

  • The "crazed ex-CIA operative" and the politician's handlers are about the only possible suspects. Readers will quickly decide that one or both of these people must've committed the present-day crimes. So the mystery is more a case of untangling the obvious possibilities than of surprising twists and turns.

  • As one reviewer noted, the ending is a little unsatisfying. It's wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly. The crimes are revealed to be strictly amateur-hour. Encyclopedia Brown could've unraveled them.

    Here's a clue for people with incriminating evidence. Don't use it to threaten one of the most powerful politicians in the country. He won't pay you off and then shake hands to thank you. He'll torture or kill you and your loved ones to get his hands on the goods.

    And here's a clue for people faced with incriminating evidence. Don't start robbing and killing people in a desperate attempt to find the goods. The owners may have made multiple copies...stashed them halfway around the world...or leaked them to lawyers, the police, or the media. In short, they'll have a fail-safe backup plan--if they're not complete idiots, that is.

    I wouldn't recommend paying off the owners, either. That'll just lead to more threats and payoffs. Your best bet is to gather your lawyers and PR people and spin the evidence before someone else does.

  • Coel has a habit of overusing the phrases "The Ancestors," "The Elders," and "The Moccasin Telegraph." The narrator recites them as they're holy words etched in stone somewhere.

    Sure, Indians may call their ancestors "The Ancestors" sometimes. But they also call them the old ones, the ancient ones, the grandfathers, the forefathers, the people who came before, the previous generations, etc.

  • The unrequited love between Father O'Malley and Vicki Holden is still unrewarding. Do something about it, Coel. Either consummate the relationship or end it, but don't leave it hanging. Let your protagonists grow and change. Don't keep them frozen in mid-relationship forever.

  • I was thinking Wife of Moon might be an 8.0 or an 8.5, but the ending didn't live up to the beginning. Here are my ratings for the Coel mysteries I've read:

    Wife of Moon--7.5
    The Spirit Woman--7.5
    The Ghost Walker--7.0

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

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