Forests of the Night by James W. Hall.
St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2005. 341 pages.
In recent years an increasing number of writers have been drawn to the tragic history of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as a kind of literary vehicle. Although the plight of other Native American tribes equals (and often exceeds) the shame and pathos associated with the Cherokee Removal, it is a kind of historic parable — a tale that reveals the hypocrisy beneath the Great American Dream.
James W. Hall, a successful writer of “crime fiction,” normally sets his suspenseful action tales on the Florida sun coast. Best known for his depiction of ruthless psychotics, Hall’s protagonists spend much of their time cruising bars and coastal inlets, alternately trolling for tarpons and ruthless drug dealers. Hall is at his best in familiar territory: sun, sand, sultry vixens, crisp dialogue and tequila in the Green Flash Bar. However, this time out, he opts for the foggy coves of the Great Smoky Mountains and a dark secret that originates with the death of T’sali, the Cherokee martyr.
Instead of Thorn, the aging beachboy, Hall’s protagonist is Charlotte Monroe, a dedicated Miami cop with a phenomenal gift for “reading faces” — the fleeting twitch or facial flicker that telegraphs a suspect’s intentions. Will he cower or attack? As a consequence, the FBI will resort to anything (including blackmail) to acquire Charlotte’s services in tracking down wanted criminals.
However, Charlotte’s life is complicated. She is married to Parker, a highly successful criminal lawyer (think Johnnie Cochran) who believes that everyone deserves a second chance, even if they are guilty. He is also a descendant of a noted Cherokee family. In addition, Parker and Charlotte have a schizophrenic teenage daughter, Gracey, who spends much of her time (when she is off her medication) discussing her future as an actress with Joan Crawford, Stephen Spielberg and Barbara Stanwyck.
Now, to this heady mix, Hall adds an explosive catalyst: a blond-headed Cherokee named Jacob Panther who is on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list for murder and terrorist activities (blowing up banks) — and who just happens to be Parker’s son, the consequences of a youthful fling at a mountain retreat called Camp T’sali near Cherokee. When Jacob arrives in Miami with a lethal blowgun and a stolen truck, it appears that he has come to kill his father.
Instead he has come to (a) seek his legal advice, and (b) to warn him that his name is “on a list.” The eavesdropping Gracey learns that she has a half-brother. When Charlotte calls the police, Gracey warns Jacob and when he flees back to Cherokee, Gracey follows him, Charlotte and Parker follow Gracey and the chase is on!
The ensuing action may strain the credibility of some readers. It certainly strained mine. A lurid, fantastic story unwinds involving revenge and retribution. When Parker’s mother (who is a Ghigau or “Beloved Woman”) is murdered with a stone hatchet stolen form the Museum of the Cherokees, and the grieving son discovers a cryptic clue written in the Cherokee language (Sequoyah’s syllabery, no less!) the Monroe family descends on Cherokee with a gaggle of FBI agents in hot pursuit.
The investigation does not go well. The hallucinating Gracey ends up in a trailer with Lucy Panther (Jacob’s mother and her father’s old flame), while Parker and Charlotte check into the Holiday Inn. Cherokee seems to be a dreary place, filled with sullen people, doomed elders and sleazy craftshops. However, regardless of how stressful the search for Jacob becomes, the Miami duo has time to occasionally lift their eyes to the fog-shrouded Smokies and marvel at their beauty.
There is a visit to “Unto These Hills,” which is a disappointment, although Charlotte manages to shed a tear at T’sali’s execution. (Apparently, the author saw the pageant before it was “revamped” and T’sali’s martyrdom was edited out.) There is also a visit to a tribal nursing home to interview a tribal elder named Standing Dog, and a bizarre visit to a fanciful institution called Asheville Woman’s College where a mysterious guardian of the tribal rolls keeps the fateful “list” — the names of T’sali’s descendants who are marked for execution.
I won’t give away the final revelation about the assassins; however, I can’t resist mentioning the “killer poodles.” Yes, that’s right. White Poodles. They are a bit over-sized, of course, and have been trained to kill at a signal from their owner who just happens to be the Cherokee Police Chief, a white man and a really sick puppy in his own right ... with an Elvis hairdo. Believe me, this is all just too good to miss.
Promise not to laugh, now.