by Micah S. Hackler
Reviewed by Martin Kich
Coyote Returns is Hackler's second Sheriff Lansing Mystery. Like the first, Legend of the Dead, this novel is set in New Mexico near the Navajo reservation. Taken together, the novels establish Sheriff Lansing as an Anglo-American who is more interested in Justice than he is in Native American life per se. So what we get here is the outsider's gradual initiation into a society and culture that remains in many ways determinedly closed to outsiders.
The focuses of both novels are seemingly local crimes that turn out to be connected to corporate conspiracies to defraud Native Americans of their land and its resources. Because the land is largely either near-desert or rugged mountains, there are some obvious ironies in the contrast between its being at once so economically marginal and so rich in some resources. Likewise, because historically the Native Americans were purposely pushed into reservation areas which were considered wasteland, there are further ironies in these late attempts to take even the little that was left to them. Lastly, because the ecology of the Southwest is so fragile, there are some broader ironies in the corporate willingness to sacrifice the sacred balance of the land to a greed so momentarily satisfied and so sanctioned by repeated practice that it is hardly even rationalized as progress.
Of course, the problem with this sort of scenario is that it is so very predictable. Whatever suspense there is in the novels derives from figuring out the particulars of the conspiracies, not their general shapes. (For the sake of credibility, in his next Sheriff Lansing Mystery, Hackler will surely have to treat a crime or series of crimes that are entirely local. For how many grand conspiracies can a small-town sheriff confront in a career? For somewhat the same reason, they had to get Jessica Fletcher of TV's Murder She Wrote out of Cabot Cove, Maine, and into places such as New York City: so many people were being knocked off in Cabot Cove that it started to seem incredible that any of the residents of that supposedly quiet little town would show any surprise at all when another corpse turned up. Although Sheriff Lansing patrols a more inherently violent terrain, one wonders how long it can be before he assumes that the solution to each new murder, no matter how pedestrian it seems, will necessarily involve the unravelling of some big new conspiracy.)
Likewise, this type of scenario ultimately reinforces the stereotypes of Anglo-Americans as victimizers and of Native Americans as victims--and thereby undercuts those individual characterizations that might work pointedly against such easy stereotypes. For instance, in Coyote Returns, Lansing's new deputy, Gabriel Hanna, rediscovers his Navajo roots. His father had died of alcoholism after being driven off the reservation as a suspected thief. Gabriel is now welcomed onto the reservation by his Uncle Edward Hania, a seemingly unlikable character who is clearly more driven by his entrepreneurial ambitions than by any deep sense of his heritage. Yet, it turns out that even this schemer is more victim than victimizer--that, seemingly, it is preferable in Hackler's view for even this sort of Native American to be shown as a dupe of Anglo-Americans than as actually corrupted in some more complex way.
Along these same lines, the novel suffers from some overly dramatic, romantic sub-plots. Sheriff Lansing discovers the depth of his affection for his woman friend only after she is shot and slips into an extended coma. And Deputy Hanna not only rediscovers his heritage but at the same time also falls in love with a beautiful and assertive young woman whose father's corpse is at the center of everything. There is a little too much of the Bonanza syndrome here (named for TV's Cartwrights, whose romantic involvements with women usually condemned those women to very sudden deaths--whether by malice, accident, or disease--or to separation from the Cartwrights due to some exaggerated sense of shame or duty or due to some sort of misplaced or transferred hatred).
Lastly, Hackler takes a big chance by inserting into this realistic narrative the mythical figure of the Coyote and by making the resolution of the plot dependent on this Coyote-figure whose return is marked by a regional population explosion of coyotes. For much of the novel, this element seems awkwardly superimposed on the rest of the narrative, but, to Hackler's credit, it truly does bring a great deal of emotional force and thematic resonance to the novel's ending. We are left to consider the compelling paradox that even the fullest explanations often depend on a recognition of the unexplainable.
In the end, this novel is more satisfying in its parts than in its whole. Hackler demonstrates not only a great deal of potential but a great deal of realized talent. Unfortunately, his choice of setting and subjects invites comparisons to Hillerman's novels, and such a comparison is inevitably to Hackler's disadvantage, for Hillerman is now a novelist at the top of his form, whereas Hackler seems to be in the process of finding a form which will accommodate his considerable talents in describing characters, confrontations, landscapes, and the objects that fill them with mystery and meaning.