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A good mystery story ... the places where it slips the boundaries of its genre that make it a great work of fiction.

Book Review: The Red Power Murders Thomas King – More DreadfulWater

In the early 1970s Native Americans started to take action, much like the blacks in the fifties and sixties, fighting back against centuries of mistreatment their people received from the American Government. One of the organizations springing up during this time was the American Indian Movement (AIM).

As all activities on American Native reservations were under the jurisdiction of the Federal government, any policing matters regarding Natives was handled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). One of the hot spots in the years AIM made its presence felt was the Pine Ridge Reservation. Here, their most notable protest took place when they occupied a church on the land where the Wounded Knee massacre took place. (American soldiers killed over 300 unarmed men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek in the late 1800s.)

One of the participants in the occupation was a young woman from Nova Scotia, Canada,  named Anna Mae Aquash. She would become close to the inner circle of AIM and was active on many levels. In 1976 her body was found on a road in the Pine Ridge Reservation. She had been shot once in the back of the skull and had been dead for ten days by the time her body was found.

To this day, although there has been much speculation and plenty of accusations back and forth including a claim that Anna Mae was an FBI informant, and no one has been found guilty of her murder. It remains as much a mystery today as it was 30 years ago.

Thirty years ago, Thomas King's lead character in his most recent book, The Red Power Murders, photographer and reluctant detective Thumps DreadfulWater had been on the fringes of the group known as the Red Power Movement (RPM). Although never personally active in any of their actions, he was well acquainted with most of the central figures involved. When the leader of RPM from that time, Noah Ridge, shows up on a book promotion tour in sleepy Chinook where Thumps now lives, not only does it revive bad memories, but it raises a lot of questions.
Red Power Murders
The question of why Noah is bothering with a remote location like Chinook is quickly supplanted in Thump's mind after Noah approaches the Sheriff for protection due to a death threat he's received since his arrival in town. The presence of an FBI agent before anything happens — then a corpse turning up — only adds to the puzzle. The corpse turns out to be an ex-federal agent who had been involved in a raid 30 years ago, resulting in the deaths of two agents and three RPM members. Suddenly questions start to litter the ground along with the falling snowflakes as winter descends on Chinook.

Noah also brings the past with him in the form of Dakota Miles. She was a one-time, sort of, girlfriend of Thumps, but her deep involvement with the movement quashed the hopes of any man who wanted to share a life with her. Thumps remembers putting her on a train after she recovered from a suicide attempt, following the mysterious murder of her closest friend and fellow RPM member Lucy Kettle, to travel home.

Like Anna Mae, fingers had been pointed at Lucy as a potential FBI informant, but those rumours had as little substance as the guesses as to who killed her. Perhaps it was RPM members getting rid of a traitor. Or the FBI — either directly being behind the hit or indirectly by planting information through their informer that got her killed by fellow RPM members. Or perhaps it was the actual informer, because the victim was going to expose whoever it was had she survived.

For some people old wounds will simply scar up and leave a mark that will twinge when the weather gets damp. In others the same wound may fester for years and stay raw and exposed no matter what happens. While Thumps has a good healthy layer of scar tissue and deeper wounds from a more recent past that keep memories of Lucy at bay, Dakota's memories have never so much as scabbed. Lucy Kettle could have died yesterday, as far as she was concerned.

As the events of the past start to intrude further and further into the present, Thumps is forced to start peeling back his layers of protective scarring by walking trails he hasn't tread in close to 30 years. Other people's memories, newspaper accounts, and information from case files — all of which are long moribund but available through the freedom of information act and the Internet — are pieces in a jigsaw puzzle that gets more confusing each time a new section is filled in.

Is it a coincidence that Lucy Kettle's family was from Chinook and that Noah's book tour showed up here? Could Grover, Lucy's brother be the person responsible for the death threats against Noah? How about the fact that the dead federal agent was the contact for the FBI informant in the RPM, and what Thumps asks himself, is he doing in the middle of this mess?

He stayed out of it the first time around because he mistrusted the motives of Noah Ridge thirty years ago. He'd make a lot of noise but never do any of the work after the fact. It was always others who ran the soup kitchens, ensured the schools stayed open, co-ordinated the construction of housing, and anything else that was removed from media attention. How much of these murder threats is just an attempt to increase sales for a book that's barely selling?

When George Orwell spoke out against Stalin and Communist Russia in his newspaper columns and books before and during World War II, he was branded as a traitor by the intellectuals in the British left wing. When a writer is a member of a group that has legitimate grievances, the most difficult task is to hold up the mirror of self-criticism and invite people to look into it.

You're not supposed to question, only supposed to say the cause is noble and that's all that counts. They'll use the truth against us so don't rock the boat by giving them ammunition and showing cracks in our unity is the usual argument in those cases. Thomas King has put a lot of boats in heavy seas before this and will hopefully continue to do so in years to come.

The questioning of the integrity of a fictional icon of a fictional Native action group is going to make a lot of people think about AIM and its leadership. I doubt it is any coincidence that this book was published during the 30th anniversary of Anna Mae Aquash's murder. The fact that the case has been re-opened and the actions of various icons of the Native movement from that time are being called into question over what happened makes it even less likely.

Thumps DreadfulWater solves the mystery surrounding the death of Lucy Kettle in The Red Power Murders, but he comes no nearer to solving the dilemma of what to do about it. The argument that the ends justify the means (Nobody had better dare take my usage of the word "means" as an attack on Russell Means) leaves a foul taste in his mouth and an ache in his heart.

He's not so stupid as to deny that Natives have and are still getting a raw deal whenever the government and corporations can get away with it, but he can't reconcile himself to the way Noah Ridge uses the movement to feed his own ego. Sure, without him maybe some stuff wouldn't have happened but as a human being he's a self-serving egotist who doesn't care what happens to the people around him so long as he comes out looking martyred and heroic.

Anna Mae Aquash's murder cast a pall over the whole Native rights movement of the seventies and was responsible for a great deal of discrediting AIM among mainstream Native Americans and non-native sympathisers. We may never know how much of this was deliberately manufactured before her death by the FBI and how much was just opportunistic sowing of discontent after the fact by whoever the real informant was.

Thumps DreadfulWater is faced with the situation people of conscience will always find themselves in when faced with the moral dilemma offered by people like Noah Ridge and the good of a cause. Is a cause better served by letting this type of person do what they do and swallowing the bad taste left in your mouth? Does their claim that at least I'm doing something instead of standing on the sidelines and not doing anything justify the balance of their behaviour and the reprehensible aspects of their character?

The Red Power Murders doesn't offer any easy answers for either Thumps or the reader. King knows that each of us has to come to these decisions on our own. Even for those personally involved there are no black and white answers to these questions, and sometimes even posing them is enough to get in trouble and have one's loyalty questioned.

All the original cast of characters form DreadfulWater Shows Up are back for the Red Power Murders, with some of them reduced to supporting roles and others stepping more into the spotlight. But none of the characters — even Noel Ridges and Dakota Miles — are one-dimensional due to the attention to detail King brings to all his projects.

His usual insightful humour is very much present, but there is an introspective aspect to this book that wasn't as present in the first one. Thumps is not only trying to figure out what's happening in the present, but is having to reconstruct a past he'd just as soon forget about. The things he didn't say and didn't do thirty years ago bubble to the surface and he comes face to face with his old conflict of feelings that revolved around his personal misgivings about Noah and his desire for seeing the plight of his people dealt with.

King's talent for weaving a story is in fine form as he slowly unravels the mystery surrounding both the activities of the present day, and those from thirty years ago. His transitions from introspection to action are seamless in a way that would leave Hollywood scriptwriters jealous. One-moment characters are quietly in conversation and the next they're staring down the barrel of a gun without the least amount of warning yet with total believability.

Creating a fictionalized version of events that have happened in the real world is fraught with difficulties. Aside from the inevitable comparisons that will be made with the actual events there is the very real possibility that someone will interpret the author's version of containing a hidden accusation against those involved in the real circumstances.

While there is no denying the obvious parallels between RPM and Lucy Kettle and AIM and Anna Mae Aquash, they are for the purpose of soul searching not accusations of guilt. Thumps solves the mystery in both his present and past but is no closer to solving his dilemma of what to do about Noah Ridge. It would be nice to think of Noah as the self-serving pig who got what he came for with his trip to Chinook: five minutes on Jay Leno and a second printing of his book.

But he was also right when he said if it wasn't for him keeping Native issues in the public eye, who would? He's only playing the game the way the American government has been playing it for hundreds of years, manipulating facts and events to get whatever advantage possible from them. Besides, as Dakota Miles tells him, Noah is the RPM and without him it would have ceased to exist in the eyes of the public years ago.

Some mysteries don't have the luxury of the easy answer of simply finding the guilty party, and Thomas King in The Red Power Murders has created that creature. While there are black and white answers to the who done it aspects of this book, the others are left hanging in the air like so much smoke after a three alarm blaze. While this is a good mystery story, it is the places where it slips the boundaries of its genre that make it a great work of fiction.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.

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