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Book Review: “The Silent Spirit”

“She’s a master.”
       -Tony Hillerman

Anyone writing a Native American mystery has to wrassle with the presence of the genre’s 500-pound gorilla: the late Tony Hillerman. Margaret Coel dispatches the issue with a Hillerman blurb right on the front cover of her new novel, The Silent Spirit. (Could that be Hillerman’s Last Blurb? He died last October.)

This is the 14th novel in Coel’s Wind River mystery series, so called because the stories are set on the Arapahoe Wind River Reservation; the first book was The Eagle Catcher in 1995. Coel’s series stars a recovering alcoholic priest, Father John O’Malley, and his partner in crime-solving, Arapahoe attorney Vicky Holden.

Coel is regarded as an expert on Arapahoes, and her previous books have explored that culture in detail as O’Malley and Holden wandered among snow-frozen bodies, murdered priests, and the (maybe) grave of Sacagawea.

The Silent Spirit continues that trend with a twist: a flashback to 1923, when Arapahoes from the reservation were recruited to appear as extras in the silent film The Covered Wagon. (Yup, it was an actual film. Tim McCoy, a key character in the book, is described on the IMDB page as “liason: Indians.”)

The story is split between old and new times as Holden and Father John try to figure out who killed Kirk Wallowingbull, whose great-grandfather was one of those Hollywood extras.

Who2 reviewer Julie Corwin files this report:

“Margaret Coel’s a good storyteller. She builds characters throughout this book that I was able to connect with immediately.

What I found most interesting was the use of factual information related to the movie The Covered Wagon throughout the story, like the details about work on a 1920s movie set.

This is my first Coel read, so not knowing the history or depth of characters of Vicky and Father O’Malley, I found their personal challenges and frustrations in this book actually more annoying than supportive of the plot. By the end, they do manage the neat trick of uncovering the circumstances of Kiki’s death and of the disappearance of his great-grandfather. But they seemed like vehicles to tell the story and not much more.

The mystery within the mystery, the secondary characters — the great-grandfather and his Native pals who are on the film with him, and Tim McCoy, the cowboy who ’rounded up’ the Indians for the filming — that’s where the real pleasure is for me.

Tony Hillerman’s stories are more suspenseful, but Coel does so much better with creating interesting supporting characters. As a first-time reader of the Wind River mysteries, I was pleasantly surprised and I’m tempted to pick up another one of her books.”

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