Not Hillerman

The Man Who Fell from the Sky by Margaret Coel (2015. Penquin. ISBN 978-0-425-28031-7)

I rarely read genre fiction but when assigned this book after my very recent acceptance into a local men’s bookclub, I plunged in eyes wide open. I was hoping, given that Ms. Coel chooses to write Arapaho-inspired crime fiction due to an encounter with the late, great master of Native American detective/police stories, Tony Hillerman, I might learn a bit and also be entertained as I had been by Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn books. I wasn’t. Here’s why.

As described by the book club member giving us a mini-tutorial on Coel’s life and writing career, the author is a historian by trade who, after listening to Hillerman at a gathering of writers, turned her love of the Arapaho people in Colorado into a series of novels. That background was interesting but what struck me most is that Coel considers herself dedicated to character rather than plot, a departure for most genre specific authors. Generally, writers of mystery tales, detective stories, or police procedurals are driven by a crime and the resulting plot and only briefly touch upon character. So I was surprised to hear that this writer views herself more interested in studying and illuminating the folks who populate her stories. That may be her ambition, her intent, but that’s not how this book played out.

There are two stories here. The first, a present-day murder that takes place on the reservation, leads to speculation by the protagonists, lawyer Vicky Holden and Catholic priest Father John O’Malley that Robert Walking Bear’s death wasn’t an accidental drowning but a murder related to the second story: the legend of a fortune buried in the Colorado hills where infamous hoodlum Butch Cassidy buried loot back near the turn of the 19th century. It’s the historical fiction contained in the Cassidy sections that’s tightly drawn, spurred my interest, and kept me engaged in the book. One of the main issues with the story is that Vicky, a local attorney, is a poor choice to be the foil for the obligatory evil surrounding Walking Bear’s death. She is not a DA, not a criminal defense lawyer, not someone who would naturally be tossed into the mysterious death of a local. She’s a civil attorney and seemingly, as the plot plods along, really doesn’t do all that much in terms of solving the crime other than placing herself smack dab in the killer’s clutches. I disagree with the author: she is not a writer of complex, deep, interesting characters, at least not here. Here, she is the creator of a formulaic genre crime story populated by paper dolls.

Unlike Hillerman, who delved deeply into the culture of the Navaho to explain and detail his plots and characters, Coel doesn’t do a great job of giving the reader insight into Arapahoe culture as it relates to her fictional story. In the end, I agree with a couple of my other book club buddies: this is a beach read, though even in that context, I’ve read better.

Too coincidental and ordinary to compel me to read others in the series and that’s too bad because I do so love Hillerman. Not horribly written but not something that makes a reader go “wow.”

2 and 1/2 stars out of 5




About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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