Sunday, February 23, 2014


Frances Washburn's new mystery, released this week, will shelve in many a collection with the mysteries of Margaret Coel and Tony Hillerman, for its setting in Indian Country and its characters who speak for reservation life. But THE RED BIRD ALL-INDIAN TRAVELING BAND belongs in two other groups more closely, I think: It's a gritty, dark, often violent, yet sometimes very funny work of noir, featuring especially Sissy, the singer of the band, who has the unfortunate family curse of being the one everybody tells their secrets and losses to. And it's also a literary work built as a cascade of stories, one episode after another, thick with the details of shared meals, work pressure, people examining the edges of new experiences.

Washburn has the chops for the work -- this is her third novel; she was born on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and grew up there; and she's an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. As she takes singer-guitarist Sissy Roberts through unraveling the death (presumed murder) of Buffalo Ames, she also fingers the pulse of both Sissy's individual life shifts and the changes in Indian Country. It's far from a quick read -- the literary side of the pacing means more detours and meanders than usual -- but it's worth the lingering. And it's published by the University of Arizona Press, one more indication of growing acceptance for the mystery genre as territory where life's complexity can be probed and tested.

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