The Horned Owl Reviews
In the third installment of Clifton’s (The Bonepicker, 2017, etc.) thriller series, Detective Sam Chitto of the Choctaw Tribal Police in southeastern Oklahoma tries to prove a high schooler innocent of murder while also digging into his own father’s decade-old homicide.
Chitto first hears about Bobby Taneyhill from two concerned members of the Choctaw Nation Tribal Council, one of whom is his mother, Mattie Chitto. She and June Biggers want him to help the teen, who’s been charged with first-degree murder for the mutilation death of 33-year-old Muriel Simpson. Authorities are discounting an alibi supplied by Bobby’s tribal-elder grandfather, Charlie Walker, and instead rely on circumstantial evidence: the boy’s graphic novels, which are filled with savage imagery that he drew. The murder victim had worked at the Spiro Mounds Archaeology Center, near where Chitto’s cop father, Will, and Will’s partner, Bert Gilly, were murdered 10 years ago. Chitto’s boss, Dan Blackfox, allows him to pursue a low-profile investigation into Bobby’s case, which is currently in trial, but he tells him to avoid his father’s. Regardless, Chitto delves into both from a rented cabin near the Spiro Mounds, bringing along his trusty hound, Boycott, and consulting with his administrative assistant, Jasmine Birdsong, by phone. He already has a suspect in his father’s murder, but he’s still searching for one for the more recent homicide. Clifton dives right into the mystery at the start of the novel, opening with Mattie and June’s emphatic entrance into Chitto’s office, soaking wet from a thunderstorm. The concurrent investigations are equally engrossing; at one point, for example, Chitto questions why he never learned of a relevant phone call that Gilly received; meanwhile, his suspect list for the Simpson murder wisely includes Bobby. There’s more focus on the present-day case, which intermittently puts Chitto in the role of spectator, watching the trial unfold in the courtroom. It’s surprisingly exhilarating to watch Chitto race to catch up with two cases that are already well underway. The various characters are vibrant, but Jasmine, once again, shines brightest, handling the bulk of the story’s dry humor; in one scene, for instance, she demands a raise but immediately settles for two weeks of Chitto buying her coffee.
Another sharp mystery in a continually improving series.--Kirkus Reviews
'The Horned Owl' mystery novel highlights Oklahoma culture
"The Horned Owl" by Lu Clifton (Two Shadows, 242 pages, in stores)
It's thrilling to see Oklahoma's familiar land and people cast in a well-built, substantial Native American mystery series: the Sam Chitto books by Lu Clifton. The experience allows Oklahoma readers to see their state in an intriguing light.
I read for review the newly released “The Horned Owl,” third in the series, and enthusiastically plowed through “Scalp Dance” (2016) and “The Bone Picker” (2017) without delay. “Scalp Dance” was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award for Fiction in 2017 and “The Bone Picker” a finalist this year.
Scads of authors are developing series to fit the tribal-cop tradition initiated by Tony Hillerman with his books featuring Navajo cop Joe Leaphorn, set in and around a reservation in Arizona. The authors, of varying levels of talent, are simply switching out the Navajo-Arizona flavor for Seneca in New York, Pueblo in New Mexico, Arapaho in Wyoming, Ute in southern Colorado, Chippewa in Minnesota, a Cherokee in northern Montana, both Inupiat and Aleut in Alaska, to name but a few.
It would be hard to get excited about this bandwagon if not for Clifton's ability to weave a good story into the geography and culture, which are, in this case, southeastern Oklahoma and the Choctaw. The rules of this mystery subgenre say that the protagonist can solve the crime due to his or her unique understanding of the land and its people, and it's apparent Clifton knows what she is writing about.
“The Horned Owl” opens with thunder.
“Thunderstorms rumbled across southeastern Oklahoma in the night, leaving waves of rain in their wake," Clifton writes. "The fall pattern was beginning. More times than not, you could count on rainy weather in April and October. Sam Chitto liked patterns. Patterns were predictable.”
We know these places, such as the diners serving onion burgers and sweet tea on the ubiquitous Broadway Avenues in every little town along the way as Chitto, of the Choctaw Tribal Police, drives from Durant to Krebs to Poteau to Spiro. We can hear the crunch of the hickory nutshells under truck tires and smell the fresh cornbread one properly crumbles into one's stew. The world-building is well-done.
We know these people. Navigating the jurisdictional checkerboard created by interspersed lands of 38 sovereign Tribal Nations in Oklahoma with non-tribal lands, is a Native American detective-hero we can easily imagine. Sam is a grieving widower in a faded University of Oklahoma ballcap, with a Chevy dually pickup sporting a gun rack filled with long guns and a redbone-mix puppy with a good nose and bad manners. At the time Sam completed a geology degree from OU 10 years previously, his father, also a Choctaw policeman, was murdered. He followed his father into law enforcement to hopefully solve the murder one day.
A witness is described as “an all-angles-and-bone man” with leathery cheeks and knuckles “knotty as an oak burl.” Sam will stay at Bud and Birdie's Cozy Cabins, “the perfect romantic getaway,” while poking his nose into another tribe's territory and case involving an elder's grandson on trial for murdering a woman at the Spiro Mounds Archaeological Center. Bud and Birdie are a senior citizen couple certain that Sam is a terrorist, packing heat and holing up in No. Four of their cozy cabins, until he produces his badge and their alarm turns to eager support.
I feel like I just saw all these people at the grocery store yesterday.
Dialogue between Sam and his grandmother feels especially authentic and sweet. She understands he is very busy slaying monsters for the People but he needs to help her plant her corn before the moon shifts, too. The Choctaw myths she is illustrating in her ongoing story quilt usually play some part in solving the crimes in the books. The quilt will be a gift for Sam, to remind him of the lessons and wisdom found in his heritage after she is gone.
Sam, a trained geologist, embodies the conflict between science and myth, secular and spiritual, non-Native and Native communities.
The evidence against the accused high school boy is circumstantial, the presumed guilt based on his plentiful artwork and graphic stories depicting the raw violence prevalent in Native American myth (or any ancient myth for that matter), viewed as socially unacceptable, even “sociopathic,” in a modern, non-Native world. Sam drew the same sort of pictures when he was a boy.
The characters, dialogue and plot are too interesting, colorful and rich in detail to become cliché.
Clifton is part-Choctaw through her mother's line. She was born in southeastern Oklahoma but currently resides in northwestern Illinois. Her bachelor's and master's degrees in English are from Colorado State University.
It's a pleasure to see our everyday surroundings portrayed with unexpected, mysterious allure and to be able to tout this author's quality contributions to the genre.
— Marcie Everhart, for The Oklahoman
Published: Sun, May 27, 2018 5:00 AM