Margaret Coel’s stories feature Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley as amateur sleuths from widely different backgrounds: a divorced Arapaho female attorney and a Boston-Irish Jesuit priest. The pairing, which quickly assumes the level of close friendship and mutual respect and before long tempts both toward a romantic entanglement that they cannot honorably consummate, establishes dual cultural contexts for the stories. Between Vicky and Father John, though, there is no clash of cultures, as Father John, deeply interested in Arapaho history and profoundly respectful of the tribe’s culture, quickly achieves status as the “Indian priest.”
Although Vicky and Father John do not experience a cultural divide, cultural clashes emerge in other areas of their lives. Vicky, having been immersed for years in a white culture during law school and then at a Denver law firm, and now known to her people as Hi sei ci nihi, or Woman Alone, because of her divorce, is treated as more of an outsider by the Arapahos than is the Boston Jesuit. Vicky’s last name, “Holden,” represents her attempts to hold on to her cultural heritage despite her lengthy stay outside it. Meanwhile, Father John feels largely separated from his Jesuit community because of his alcoholism and his feeling that his superiors have little confidence in him.
These intercultural and psychological dimensions reflect Coel’s belief that the success of a mystery story depends on characters who resonate with readers. Reading Coel’s stories is like following two close friends through the ups and downs of their lives and rooting for them to find happiness and to triumph in their risky efforts to bring criminals to justice and exonerate the innocent.
Because neither Vicky nor Father John is a professional detective or private investigator, their forays into criminal investigation grow out of their broader desire to help others, Vicky by assisting her usually poverty-stricken clients and Father John by helping his parishioners. Father John consistently defines parishioners far more broadly than just those who attend Mass at St. Francis, a practice that helps lead to the great trust that the Arapaho community places in him. Similarly, Vicky regularly takes on clients that no one else wants, much to the chagrin of her law partner, Adam Lone Eagle.
The popularity of the series also grows out of the extensive cultural and historical context provided within the stories. History is regularly surfacing in the present, and cultural attitudes ranging from deep respect for elders to a spiritual intermingling of traditional and Christian rituals permeate the novels and short stories. These elements are usually integrated effectively and accurately into the stories, the result of Coel’s care in planning her stories and her wide-ranging and ongoing research. In addition to reading extensively about Arapaho history, Coel regularly visits the reservation and consults with both Arapahos...
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