Aimee and David Thurlo’s Blackening Song (1995) introduces Navajo FBI agent Ella Clah, who returns home from Los Angeles when her father is cruelly and ritualistically murdered–perhaps by Skinwalkers.
Those familiar with Tony Hillerman‘s Chee and Leaphorn novels will find the Thurlos’ work immediately recognizable. Clah’s brother, Clifford, is a tribal medicine man, but he’s also the primary suspect in his father’s death and as a result is hiding out from the police. Ella’
s status as an FBI agent makes her suspect among her own people, the Dine. She’s been away, but the behavior of a rival, Agent Blalock, who is disrespectful of traditional ways, and is termed “FB-eyes” by the reservation residents, makes Ella’s friends and neighbors wonder if she’s no longer truly part of the Navajo Nation.
The level of gore in this mystery is often gruesome. Still, the family relationships of Ella, her mother–a particularly strong character–and her brother and his family are admirable. A high school admirer, Wilson Joe, who is also Clifford’s best friend, seems interested in renewing his attention to an oblivious Ella. But romance takes a back seat to any number of shoot-outs and pick-up truck chases across arroyos, mesas, and canyons. And, Ella must decide if she is truly “L.A. Woman” as she’s called on the reservation or if her home is in the wide open spaces of the desert.
While the novel is not a sophisticated narrative and some mystical events strain credulity, it kicked off a successful series, and Ella Clah is the heroine of at least a dozen novels set on the Navajo Nation–which extends into both Arizona and New Mexico. I found Blackening Song at the John Wesley Powell Museum in Page, Arizona, and it’s an atmospheric read for a seemingly bleak countryside that also holds great beauty.