Another ‘Custer’ killed in re-enactor tale

Richard Harris

By A Contributor

This seventeenth and latest installment in Margaret Coel’s Wind River Mystery series will delight faithful readers of the series and win new adherents to this fascinating series of murder mysteries in the multicultural (white and American Indian) world of central Wyoming.

Although an accomplished mystery fiction writer, Margaret Coel is a historian by training and an expert on the Arapaho nation. She brings this expertise to the Wind River mysteries, which are all set in central Wyoming, primarily in the area around Lander and the nearby Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Arapaho and Shoshone people. While captivating the reader with compelling stories that read very easily, Coel at the same time gives us wonderful anthropological insights about native American culture, especially the Arapaho, and the challenges it faces in interacting with the dominant Anglo society in Wyoming ranching country. As well as being entertained, readers always finish a Margaret Coel book with valuable cultural insights.

As in the other novels of the series, the major, if somewhat reluctant, crime-fighting sleuths in “Killing Custer” are the unlikely duo of Irish Catholic priest Father John O’Malley and Arapaho lawyer Vicki Holden. Each has triumphed over somewhat checkered histories many years earlier. Father John, originally from Boston, was a history teacher with serious alcohol problems. His assignment to the “hinterlands” mission on the Wind River Reservation many years earlier was his “last chance” to redeem himself and remain in his profession. He not only succeeded but thrived and gradually became a trusted confidante and advocate for native peoples.

Vicki is a local native woman who eventually escaped an abusive marriage. Once she got out of that and went to law school, she returned home to be a legal champion for her people.

The two make a highly effective, if initially accidental, crime-fighting team, despite the growing background tension of their mutual attraction to each other, tempered by the realization by both that Father John cannot and will not break his priestly vows, however tempted he may be.

“Killing Custer” begins with a community parade in Lander where a General George Custer re-enactor and his subordinates participate proudly, in a brazen and offensive challenge to the local Arapaho people. Some young Arapahos also join the parade in an attempt to intimidate Custer’s group.

Unfortunately, in the ensuing confusion someone shoots and kills the Custer re-enactor, setting the stage for the book’s mystery. The young Arapaho are immediately suspected by many who are eager to jump to the conclusion that this was some kind of Indian revenge for century-old atrocities. Strong feelings on all sides threaten to tear apart this bicultural community which usually coexists in a stable, if sometimes a bit uneasy, peace.

Something readers learn early from Coel’s books is that historical slights and wrongs are not easily forgotten or forgiven in this world, as is also the case in places like Ireland or Serbia. The army massacres of natives at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee are not merely long-ago historical encounters but remain open wounds of continuing hurt and resentment.

Further complicating the mystery is that the re-enactors, especially the couple playing Custer and his wife, sometimes seem to believe that they in fact ARE the doomed general and his faithful wife, rather than just actors portraying them.

The role they frequently play in re-enactments sometimes come perilously close to reality for them. This obsession combines with the Arapahos’ collective wounded memory of the Indian wars to produce a toxic situation bound to erupt in trouble. For many in the community, the murder was really a symbolic, if not actual, murder of Custer. Was that murder an attempt to reaffirm Custer’s 1876 killing at Little Big Horn, a result of a family or inter-officer dispute from over a century ago, or a modern conflict over shady investments or family resentments?

The solution of the mystery turns out to involve not only contemporary issues and persons but also some lesser-known interpretations of long-past events that come together in an explosive crucible that keeps the readers on the edge of their seats all the way.

As always in Coel’s novels, the solution to the mystery is far more complex that it appears, and it is a privilege to us readers to be along for that ride.

If you are not already familiar with the Wind River Mysteries, I recommend them enthusiastically. They can all be found at the Manhattan Public Library.

Richard Harris is a professor of psychology at Kansas State University.

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