With Death Where The Bad Rocks Live, C. M. Wendelboe joins the ranks of western writers who follow the path blazed by Tony Hillerman. This is the second novel in his “Spirit Road Mysteries.” Wendelboe returns with his flawed hero, FBI Special Agent Manny Tanno on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Although Tanno, a Lakota Sioux, was born and raised on the reservation and briefly worked for the tribal police force, he left as soon as he could. He had the distinction of being an FBI Academy teacher in Washington, D.C., until he was called back to help in a murder investigation on the reservation in Wendelboe’s debut novel Death Along the Spirit Road. His apparent inability to solve that murder got him demoted to Pine Ridge permanently.
Tanno is called to a site known as the Stronghold in the Badlands when a body is found in a bombed-out car. A crew, hired by the tribe to locate and dispose of live ammo left over from World War II bomber training practice, has located a body in one of the cars used as targets. This is a 65-year-old cold case that becomes warmer when not one body is found, but three. Two are from the ’40s and the third from the 1960s. This begins a trail of events proving that secrets from the past and bodies often don’t remain buried forever.
The acting police chief of the Oglala Sioux Police department is Leon (Lumpy) Looks Twice. He and Manny go way back and there is no love lost between them. The chief assigns Willie Runs With Horn to work with Tanno. In the previous book, Tanno took Willie under his wing and helped him learn investigative skills.
Willie has been saddled with training the chief’s niece who seems to have a big crush on him. This situation is complicated by Willie’s girlfriend being the jealous type. Tanno is also having issues in the girlfriend department and his health is going downhill.
Tanno is dealing with physical and spiritual questions in addition to trying to conduct an effective cold-case investigation. Tanno is not exactly exuding the typical hero stature in this outing.
When the identity of the victims are discovered, the case becomes even hotter. Of the two earlier victims, one was a mining engineer and the other was a revered holy man and artist, Moses Ten Bears.
The newer victim was a missing college student who just happened to be the roommate of Federal Judge Alexander Hamilton (Ham) High Elk.
High Elk has just recently been nominated to the Supreme Court and is facing confirmation hearings. If he is accepted, he would be the first Native American to serve on the high court. High Elk has a connection to Moses Ten Bears as well. His grandfather Sen. Clayton Charles was Moses’ best friend. As events from the past loom into the present and new bodies multiply, Tanno must reach into his reserves to discover the killer before he becomes the newest victim.
Wendelboe’s 38 years working law enforcement brings genuineness to this Native American police procedural. His experiences working near three Sioux reservations in the 1970s gave Wendelboe plenty of opportunity to see up close and personal the events surrounding the American Indian Movement (AIM), especially on the Pine Ridge reservation.
Since not all on the reservations supported AIM, there were negative consequences in families who had members with opposing views. Wendelboe uses this background to great effect in creating the relationship between Manny Tanno and his brother Reuben, an AIM enforcer, former felon and current holy man.
The harsh landscape of the Badlands, the poverty and the scourge of alcoholism on the reservation make for a sometimes somber setting for Wendelboe’s characters.
But the author has wisely added colorful secondary characters who lighten the mood and move the story forward. Fans of Western writing will find significant entertainment within the pages of Death Where The Bad Rocks Live.
Freelance reviewer Leslie Doran may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.