The State of Indigenous Crime Fiction
June 29, 2018 | Wayne Arthurson
Off the top of your head, name an Indigenous writer of crime fiction. Not someone who writes crime fiction with Indigenous characters, but an actual Indigenous writer who pens crime/mystery novels. If you want to Google “Native American mysteries,” go ahead.
Even though millions of books have been sold in the sub-genre of “Native American mysteries,” most writers who reap the benefits from this success—Tony and Anne Hillerman, Margaret Coel, Craig Johnson, Thomas Perry, Kathleen and Michael Gear, and M. J. McGrath, to name a few—are non-Indigenous. Your previous Google search showed you that.
I’m not saying people can’t write what they want, but imagine if most of the crime novels featuring African, Latino, Asian or other multicultural characters and themes were written by white novelists.
That’s the way it used to be, when using an “ethnic sleuth” seemed like a neat way to add an exotic element to crime fiction. Charlie Chan was an ethnic sleuth created by a white man. So were Mr. Moto, Virgil Tibbs (In the Heat of the Night and other novels), Shan Tao Yun (The Inspector Shan series), and this list goes on. Crime fiction still has some old school “ethnic sleuths” out there—Precious Ramotswe, Dr. Siri Paiboun, Ava Lee—but times have changed.
Now, if you search African American, Asian, or Latino crime fiction, most writers you’ll get will be from those communities. Publishers and editors are realizing, for the most part, that having an authentic voice works better for a crime novel featuring multicultural characters. This is even expanding into gender-based and LGBTQ crime fiction.
Not so much for Indigenous crime fiction. If you search for Native American mysteries, as I hope you did earlier, you’ll be lucky to find one or two Indigenous authors. The Goodreads list of native American mysteries has 50 books, but only one written by an Indigenous author
At the top of any Indigenous crime fiction list you’ll always find Tony Hillerman, creator of the Leaphorn and Chee crime books, a series so successful that Hillerman was the 22nd-richest person in New Mexico in 1996. He was named a Mystery Writers of America grandmaster in 1991, and his daughter Anne has continued the series since his death in 2008.
But despite his research into the Navajo nation, Hillerman’s inspiration for the books was not the Navajo people, but rather Arthur Upfield, an Australian writer who created the half-caste Aborigine character Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte. Bony was a tracker used by the police to capture bad guys. And though somewhat successful in Australia and the United States in the mid-20th century, Boney is now seen as being as stereotypical as Charlie Chan.
“When my own Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police unravels a mystery because he understands the ways of his people, when he reads the signs in the sandy bottom of a reservation arroyo, he is walking in the tracks Bony made 50 years ago,” Hillerman wrote in an introduction to a reprint of one of Upfield’s novels.
So Hillerman’s novels, and the many inspired by him on the Goodreads list, follow directly in the footsteps of Upfield’s Bony, using classic Indigenous stereotypes and tropes such as the stoic/noble warrior, the mystical Indian, the uncanny tracker, the wise elder, the dangerous savage, and the always rural setting, even though the majority of Indigenous people live in urban areas.
As noted, writers can write about any topic they want, but this situation isn’t one or two writers writing about a cultural group they don’t belong to. This is a group of writers from the established majority (white, European-descended writers) dominating and profiting from a sub-genre about people from a minority (Indigenous peoples)—a minority that suffered oppression by the established majority. And for the publishing, editing, and bookselling establishment, this is business per usual.
So, when an Indigenous writer writes a crime novel featuring Indigenous characters and themes, there are pressures, spoken and unspoken, from editors, readers, and booksellers to be more like the books that came before, even if those books lack authenticity. The message is: if you want the success of Hillerman et al., you’d better write like them.
Because no matter how authentic that Indigenous writer’s story is, how non-Indigenous writers have depicted Indigenous crime fiction is considered more authentic due to the success of these books in the sub-genre.
In Indigenous crime fiction, the ethnic sleuth not only lives on, it’s celebrated and seen as canon. This is not a good thing.