SCALP DANCE, A Sam Chitto Mystery


Kirkus Reviews

Review Issue Date: September 15, 2015
Online Publish Date: September 3, 2015

A tribal police officer fights inner demons as he investigates a series of killings. Lt. Sam Chitto of the Choctaw Nation Tribal Police is nearly at his breaking point after the death of his young wife and his continued failure to solve the 10-year-old murder of his police-officer father. A geologist by training, Chitto is considering quitting the police until he's asked to quietly investigate a case that rightly belongs to the FBI. In Oklahoma, the state is chopped up into many tribal areas mixed in with nontribal lands, and the tribal police force's inability to arrest anyone but Indians allows many criminals to slip through the cracks. The body of a naked white man with his head chopped off has been found on the Choctaw council-house grounds four days after a ceremony took place. Since the victim was married to a Chickasaw, Chitto will work with Sgt. Frank Tubbe of the Chickasaw Nation while they try to keep the FBI in the dark. Chitto's mother, a councilperson deeply involved in tribal affairs, is just one of the many people unhappy with the failure of official efforts to prevent and prosecute rape, the most common crime police deal with. When Chitto's investigation reveals that the dead body is not the first to be found four days after a ceremony on various tribal grounds, he realizes that he needs to learn more about the rituals of his culture and enlists the help of cultural anthropologist Leslie Anderson, an attractive friend of his mother. The men who were killed were linked only by their propensity toward violence against women. Chitto, who's being followed as he investigates, wonders if someone in law enforcement is leaking information. When he does discover the truth, he has a tough decision to make. This fine procedural debut by Clifton, who's published several teen novels (Immortal Max, 2014, etc.), is made even more interesting by its detailed information on Native American ceremonies.


Library Journal: STARRED REVIEW 


Lt. Sam Chitto of the Oklahoma Choctaw Tribal Police gets an early morning call-out for a young woman who has been raped. Then a headless body is found on the Choctaw council-house grounds. No one can figure out the connection. Sam’s boss asks the lieutenant to investigate without letting the FBI know. In the meantime, Sam has to continue working all his other cases as well, yet the solution lies much closer than he could know. VERDICT YA author Clifton crafts a compelling adult debut, vividly rendering southeastern Oklahoma settings—the Ouachita Mountains; the Red River Valley, and the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Natives will recognize the locales, and other readers will want to visit. This book will thrill readers of Jean Hager’s “Mitch Bushyhead” and “Molly Bearpaw” mysteries or anyone interested in Native American lore.


MAY 14, 2016

Kevin's Corner

Blending mystery and the complexities of criminal cases on the tribal lands in Oklahoma, Scalp Dance: A Sam Chitto Mystery by Lu Clifton opens just outside of Hugo, Oklahoma. Lieutenant Sam Chitto is a member of the Oklahoma Choctaw Police. A man of honor and principles haunted by his past, he is also very frustrated with the rules and regulations regarding crimes and jurisdictional land 
boundaries. Frustration stemming from situations such as the current rape case he working where a non-Indian is the assailant and most likely nothing is ever going to happen to him.
Sam Chitto has made it clear to Director Daniel Blackfox that he wants and needs a change from the normal daily grind though this new case he had handed to him is not what he had in mind.  The case involves the homicide of a man found on the Tuskahoma council house grounds. The victim was decapitated which, while clearly the cause of death, was also done in such a way to leave very little evidence behind. The head, once removed, was placed next to the body. It is also apparent that prior to death the deceased had been spread eagled and staked down to the dried ground made hard by the summer heat. Despite what must have gone on there is nearly no evidence on or around the body. Since the dead man, one Delbert Wilcox not listed on the tribal roll,  was married to Emma Love Wilcox of the Chickasaw,  Director Blackfox is going to pair Sam Chitto with Police Sergeant Frank Tubbe of the Chickasaw Nation. The director wants Tubbe and Chitto to work the case hard and fast and do as much as they can before the FBI swoops in and takes over.
That might have worked better if the person or persons involved had stopped at just one. They didn’t. As the bodies begin to accumulate, it slowly becomes clear the who and why behind it all in Scalp Dance: A Sam Chitto Mystery by Lu Clifton.
This is one of those cases where the review buzz and hype is actually warranted. Author of the middle school books titled Freaky Fast Frankie JoeImmortal Max, andSeeking Cassandra, Lu Clifton has created a very strong novel of mystery as well as psychological complexity. She has taken the clichés of a son haunted by the unsolved case of his murdered father and a husband haunted by the death of his wife from cancer where the simple act of eating and enjoying food made by a woman could be viewed as a sign of disrespect to the dead wife, and managed to rework them both in ways that are fresh for readers. Add in various ongoing cases made more difficult by the legal complexities with regards to crimes on Indian lands in Oklahoma and more makes Scalp Dance: A Sam Chitto Mystery a solidly good read.
It will also be interesting to see what happens in the next book in the series. While the ending works and reveals the identities and motivations, it also raises at least a couple of questions in the mind of this reader as how this series will move forward. Nothing more can be said without very possibly ruining the book. That certainly will not happen here. It also would not be surprising if Scalp Dance: A Sam Chitto Mystery racked up several awards for author Lu Clifton.  It truly is that good.