Death Along the Spirit Road (Manny Tanno)
by C.M. Wendelboe
Cover Artist: Richard Tuschman
Review by Don Metzler
Berkley Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780425240021
Date: 01 March 2011 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Manny came to the stop sign at Oglala, and a dark-colored Dodge pulled beside him. He was vaguely aware that the Dodge's passenger window rolled down. The darkness obscured the driver, but not the passenger who pointed a long-barreled pistol at Manny. The image took a moment to cut through his brain, foggy with thoughts of Clara. Quick movements eluded him as he reached for his gun in the shoulder holster. Was it stuck, or was he just drawing slower than he should?FBI agent Manny Tanno returns on special assignment to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota after an eighteen year absence. A native Lakota by birth, Manny has grown accustomed to the urban lifestyle of Virginia and Washington, DC, and the bleak poverty of Pine Ridge comes as a culture shock to him after all of his years away.
Manny has been sent to investigate the death of Jason Red Cloud, a high-rolling land developer who was on the verge of breaking ground for a new resort near the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The planned resort would supposedly have brought money and jobs to the impoverished Lakota tribe. But before that dream could be realized, Jason Red Cloud is found murdered, with an authentic hundred-year-old war club lodged in his skull.
Manny's investigation is initially hampered by several factors, not the least of which is the animosity of tribal police Lieutenant "Lumpy" Looks Twice, an old rival who resents Manny's involvement in the case. Lumpy will do whatever he is able to sabotage Manny's work.
Additional complications arise because of Manny's family connections on the reservation. The most obvious suspect is Manny's brother Reuben, who had served the role of enforcer for the American Indian Movement during the dark and violent days of the 1970s on Pine Ridge. Reuben has already served prison time for a killing that he freely admitted to, and although Reuben now claims to be a Lakota holy man, a wicasa wakam, Manny is convinced that his brother is still capable of murder.
Another compromise to Manny's objectivity is Elizabeth, Reuben's ex-wife. Though she divorced Reuben many years ago, Elizabeth and Manny remain connected by an emotional and familial affection.
Then the attempts on Manny's life begin. First is the pickup truck that runs him off the road while on his evening jog. Then the assault by a hammer-wielding, hooded attacker. Thinly veiled anger besets Manny from all sides. It doesn't matter that he grew up here on the Pine Ridge Reservation; all that matters now is that he has become an agent for the federal government, the most hated and distrusted entity that has ever existed, as far as the remnants of AIM are concerned.
And to further complicate matters, Manny has begun to experience weird, unexplainable visions, of the Wounded Knee massacre, and also of a menacing ghostly presence that seems to be stalking him. He is forced to go to his brother, the holy man, for interpretation of these visions, even though his brother remains the chief suspect in Jason Red Cloud's murder.
Death Along the Spirit Road is a solid first novel from a promising new author. The characters fly off the pages with startling reality. There is Reuben Tanno who, for all of their differences, continues to exude a powerful brotherly love and concern for his younger sibling Manny. There is Reuben's ex-wife, Elizabeth Comes Flying, who may harbor secrets of her own. There is tribal policeman William With Horn, who emerges as Manny's de facto sidekick, and helps extricate Manny from more than one jam during the course of the investigation. And there is Manny Tanno himself, a fascinatingly conflicted character, tugged one way by the poverty and pride of his native Lakota people, while tugged in an entirely different direction by the lush job that awaits him back at Quantico.
The story's tie-ins to Lakota native spiritualism, and also to the legacy of the frustrated and debatable misdirected goals of the AIM movement of the 1970s, lend an historical credence to the narrative. It will be fun to see how author C.M. Wendelboe follows up on this compelling first novel.