James D. Doss: White Shell Woman

 

Oh dear God – why, oh why did I have Mr. Doss’s novels sitting on my shelves for ages without ever actually cracking a single spine while he was still alive and cranking out further installments to his series?  Man, am I glad to finally have remedied that omission, even if only after his death.  And to think that I actually first bought these books with the notion that they would probably appeal to me …

I originally selected White Shell Woman for the Full Moon bingo square because the hardcover edition I own has a full moon on the cover and the series’s protagonist is a Southern Ute (ex-)cop / tribal investigator named Charlie Moon.  Turns out, the novel’s title makes this one a match for that particular square as well, as “White Shell Woman” is actually the Ute name for the moon.

Some of the pro reviewer praise for this series runs along the lines of “what Tony Hillerman did for the Navajo, James D. Doss has done for the Ute,” but this actually short-changes Mr. Doss’s books in several significant ways: for one thing, judging by his author portraits, Kentucky-born Doss – unlike Hillerman – wasn’t Caucasian / white himself, but even more importantly, he didn’t merely copycat Hillerman; his no-nonsense, dry humor and spare but intensely atmospheric prose makes for a style all of his own, and his books’ protagonists (Charlie Moon, his best friend, [white] local police chief Scot Parris, and Charlie’s cranky old aunt, Ute shaman Daisy Perika) can easily stand up to Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee any time.

As a Halloween bingo book, White Shell Woman turned out an excellent choice, not merely on the strength of the writing and because it’s a perfect match for the Full Moon square on several levels: this is also, at least in parts, a fairly spooky read, which would equally well fit the “Dark and Stormy Night,” “Supernatural,” “Witches” (well, Anasazi shamans / wizards), “Vampires vs. Werewolves,” “Grave or Graveyard” and (if I’m right about Mr. Doss’s ethnicity) “Diverse Authors” squares, as the story concerns a series of murders and suspicious deaths occurring at night (at least one of them, during a violent thunderstorm) at a Southern Colorado Anasazi dig, with one of the victims being found semi-entombed in a pit house ruin, while a hound-like creature believed to be the shape-shifting ghost of an Anasazi priest-turned-werewolf is seen by several witnesses (or is he?) – and all of this, set against the background of an old legend concerning blood rituals and human sacrifices performed by Anasazi priests in order to placate the moon goddess (White Shell Woman) and overcome a prolonged and lethal draught.

Highly recommended – even if you’re not reading this for the bingo, if you’re at all interested in the American Southwest and its history, culture and archeology, do yourself a favor and take a look at this novel (and Mr. Doss’s “Charlie Moon” series in general).  It certainly won’t be the last book by Doss I’ve read – in fact, I’m glad I already own some of them! 🙂

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