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THE DROWNING MAN

By Margaret Cole

Berkeley, 2006 ($23.95)
ISBN-10: 0-425-21171-1

Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel

Brian Little Wolf couldn't believe his eyes when he drove through Red Cliff Canyon and saw only a blank rock face where the Drowning Man had been. The ancient and sacred petroglyph had looked down on the canyon for two thousand years, symbol of the spirits who had watched over the Arapaho since the beginning of time. Now it was gone, as were so many other precious artifacts, taken by thieves to sell for huge sums to greedy collectors who cared only about possessing something nobody else could get.

Father John O'Malley, known around the area as the "Indian Priest," is given a message from the thieves: if the tribe can come up with a quarter of a million dollars, they could have the petroglyph back; if not, there were plenty of willing buyers who could easily pay the price. The tribal elders tell Father John that a similar thing had happened seven years ago. A petroglyph from the same area was stolen, and a mysterious Indian offered to ransom it back. Two young Arapahos, Raymond Trueblood and Travis Birdsong, were accused of taking the stone. Trueblood was shot in what the feds said was an argument between thieves, and Birdsong was convicted of his murder. The glyph was never seen again.

Birdsong's grandfather, Amos Walking Bear, had always claimed his grandson was innocent, but no lawyer had ever been willing to take on the case. When the new theft was discovered, and it appeared that the same person or persons were involved, he asked Vicky Holden to re-open the case. She was no stranger to lost causes, but her partner and sometime lover Adam Lone Eagle, wanted her to focus on more lucrative cases. Still, she told the old man she would try to help, and when she started looking into it, she began to believe Amos might be right. At the very least, Travis had not had competent representation, and deserved his day in court. Father John also becomes doubtful about Birdsong's guilt, and he and Vicky work together to find the real artifact thief. The mastermind of the theft ring is not happy about that, and takes drastic measures to keep them from learning the truth.

Father John is sympathetic when the church higher-ups send an elderly priest to the mission to rest, but he soon finds out that the old man has a major problem that threatens to tear St. Francis apart. Father John must deal with his anger and sense of betrayal while keeping his congregation together. Vicky and Adam hit a rough patch in their personal life, but have to act together to keep a logging company from further desecrating the canyon.

This novel, twelfth in the series, is as excellent as the previous works. Coel depicts the Wyoming landscape in vivid detail. Her characters are three-dimensional, people that the reader will care about. The serious topics of artifact theft, the government's lack of concern for the destruction of public and Indian land, and pedophilia in the priesthood are deftly handled. Tony Hillerman is quoted on the cover as saying "She's a master." I agree.

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