Cherokee Mysteries

An oil boom in Indian country means trouble for two Oklahoma detectives

The experience of writing The Osage Rose, for first-time novelist Tom Holm, must have been something like doing pencil sketches your entire life and then deciding to try a watercolor. Holm has been a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona since 1980, and is also Muscogee Creek and Cherokee. After completing two non-fiction books, one about Native Americans and whites in the Progressive Era and another about Native American Vietnam vets, he has tried fiction for the first time in The Osage Rose, with impressive results. A tale that will appeal to both mystery buffs and history buffs, the story combines a carefully detailed account of real racial and political tensions with that of two rough-and-tumble detectives on a quest for truth and justice.

Tulsa, Okla. is a city fraught with tension just after World War I, when ex-cop J.D. Daugherty decides to set up his own private investigation firm there. Well-connected and experienced, he gets a case quickly, and is pleased that it seems fairly simple. A rich young girl, Rose Chichester, a friend of the resident oil moguls, the Shelbys, has gone missing. Her father tells J.D. that he's sure she's run off with Tommy Ruffle, a young Indian who's not only a friend of the Shelbys, but heir to a supply of valuable Osage oil. J.D. decides to send his young operative, a mechanic and Cherokee Indian named Hoolie Smith, up to Osage country to check out the Ruffle family while he remains in Tulsa.

J.D.'s case takes a sinister turn when the body of a young Indian man turns up. And as he talks with the Shelbys to piece together the circumstances surrounding Rose's disappearance, he quickly learns that the wealthiest family in town has some serious skeletons in its (many) closets. Complicating matters further is the ominous local rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which threatens to unsettle the delicate racial balance between a thriving black community and local whites--with Indians caught in between.

Things aren't going much better for Hoolie Smith. Soon after arriving in Osage country, he meets a kind family by the name of Lookout. They take him in and offer to help with his investigation--and he can't help but notice their attractive young daughter, Myrtle. But on Hoolie's first night with the family, a bullet slices through a window and into the body of the family patriarch, leaving Hoolie scrambling to find both the missing girl and a killer, and thinking, perhaps, that everything might be connected. He and J.D. both find themselves at the heart of a much grander, crueler scheme than they could have imagined, and both risk life and limb to seek justice for people who can't win it for themselves.

Where Holm really shines (not surprisingly, given his profession) is in relaying the historical context surrounding his characters. His prose is rich with detail but written with such authority that it's easy to forget that The Osage Rose is a fictional tale.

Where a less-informed writer would gloss over tradition in a rush to the action, Holm carefully details how Hoolie uses Cherokee war medicine to help him set his path through the battle. While foreign to many readers, these small ceremonies are rendered with such clarity and visual richness that they make perfect, practical sense: "Hoolie sat as still as possible. ... He saw two glowing eyes in the rock pit. They blinked once, and Hoolie felt a bit of air against his chest, as if something was breathing on him. Hoolie knew that the peregrine--the far-seeing bird of Cherokee warfare--would be there to help him see at great distances."

The book's only flaw, which isn't much of one at all, is that it leaves you wanting to know more about the heroes at its heart. We know, for example, that J.D. Daugherty is the son of Irish-Catholic immigrants who fights for the oppressed because he knows poverty and discrimination. But it would be nice to know even more about this man, to get inside his hardened heart, find out what happens when he takes off his cowboy hat and kicks up his boots.

Same goes for Hoolie; the presence of a love interest, Myrtle, brings out a bit of emotion, but we learn little about his personal background and, hence, his motivation. Killers and kidnappers aren't the only people who need motives; so do the people who spend their lives hunting them.

At the end of The Osage Rose, Holm has tacked on an epilogue that leaps decades forward in the lives of his characters. It's certainly satisfying to know what happens down the road, but disappointing to realize that Holm has likely precluded a series of books about this hardy detective and his enterprising associate. Even so, here's hoping that among his many other endeavors, Holm finds time to make novel-writing more than a dalliance.

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