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Margaret Coel:
Best-Selling Author of Arapaho Mysteries

By Mary Jo Dangel, St. Anthony Messenger

Margaret Coel has joined the list of popular Catholic mystery writers who blend morals with murders. Like G. K. Chesterton, William Kienzle and Ralph McInerny, Coel's whodunits feature a priest who saves souls and solves murders. Her clergyman's assignment is a mission on the Wind River Arapaho Reservation in central Wyoming.

St. Stephen's Mission, the model for St. Francis Church
"Her lively style and Western settings, awash in Native Americana, evoke Tony Hillerman's work," says Booklist, Hillerman, who was featured in St. Anthony Messenger in June 1991, doesn't seem to mind the competition: His praise graces Coel's book jackets. Regarding Coel's nationally best-selling first novel, The Eagle Catcher, published in 1995, Hillerman writes that it "shouldn't be missed by anyone interested in either new trends in mystery writing or contemporary American Indian culture. She's a master at both."

Coel, a former journalist, has also written nonfiction books, including the award-winning Chief Left Hand, Southern Arapaho, which recently was called "a classic" by The Denver Post.

In recognition of her achievements, Margaret Coel received Marquette University's prestigious Byline Award in April 1998, given annually to an outstanding alumnus of the College of Communications. During an interview in her home in Boulder, Colorado, last June, she notes that two of her peers from the Class of 1960 have also received this award: Paul Wilkes, author of The Good Enough Catholic, and Thomas Lorsung, director of Catholic News Service.

Pioneer Roots
Margaret Speas Coel was born and raised in Denver, the fourth generation of a pioneer family. She credits her father, a railroad worker, with instilling an interest In history and a respect for Native Americans. They collaborated on Goin' Railroading: Two Generations of Colorado Stories, a "steady-selling book" that is being republished. Her family "always traveled by train," she recalls, "and I travel by train now if I can."

She and many of her relatives were members of St. Dominic, an Irish-Catholic parish in Denver. "You really identified yourself by your parish," she says, recalling the time one of her cousins caused a stir by marrying someone from another parish. Now Coel belongs to St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, staffed by Paulist priests and affiliated with the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado.

The administration building, with Father John's office in the lower right
"I'm a total product of Catholic education," she notes, starting with St. Dominic, then Holy Family High School. When it was time to enroll in college, she headed east to Marquette, a Jesuit university in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "I wanted to study journalism," she explains, and Marquette had an excellent reputation in that field. At that time she couldn't attend Regis, the local Jesuit college where her male relatives earned their degrees, because it wasn't coed. It is now.

While at Marquette, she met her future husband, George, who is a dentist. They had a son who died in an accident when he was 13. They also have two daughters: Kristin is an attorney In Denver and Lisa is a married mom working as a market analyst in California.

The recent birth of her first grandchild has resulted in lots of trips to California, notes the proud grandma as she shows off a photo of baby Aileen. "Anytime somebody invited me, I went."

In addition to spending time with her new grandchild, Margaret Coel also enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and playing competitive tennis.

Combined Cultures
Margaret Coel's mysteries have been praised by Publishers Weekly, which said of The Dream Stalker, "The nicely drawn Wyoming backdrop, capable plotting and engaging characters all add up to another coup for Coel."

Her fictional sleuths are John O'Malley, S.J., a recovering alcoholic from Boston who's sent to the Wind River Reservation, and Vicky Holden, an Arapaho attorney whose ex-husband was an alcoholic. The author weaves some tense episodes into her stories as her sleuths chase, and are chased by, murder suspects. But she doesn't describe graphic scenes of sex and violence.

Father John and Margaret Coel share some of the same traits: They're both outsiders who are Irish-American and opera lovers, and they have had lots of Jesuit influence in their lives. "I wanted someone who came to the culture not knowing anything about it," explains Coel. "As my sleuth learns about the culture and appreciates it, then readers will, too." Not only is Father John an outsider, he's an Easterner, transplanted to the fictional St. Francis Mission.

Buffalo on the reservation
Coel recalls that, when she first started to write about this priest, "He was kind of Father Perfect—he was real boring." Thus, she made him a recovering alcoholic who "has a lot of empathy for people who are struggling with this on the reservation." In addition to being present at the usual parish meetings, he's an outspoken activist who gets involved in community issues, and he encourages other alcoholics to come to the A.A. meetings he attends regularly.

In many ways, Father John is a typical parish priest: He struggles over how to pay the bills and keep his vows, plans to start new programs and religion classes, administers sacraments. But there are some differences, too. In The Dream Stalker, when Father John rushes out of the rectory late at night to minister to a man who says he's dying, the priest finds the man already dead, from unnatural causes. Later, after he celebrates the victim's funeral Mass, tribal elders perform a Native American ritual. At the grave site, Father John prays, "May you go on your way to the ancestors, Gabriel Many Horses. May your spirit live in the Spirit of the kind and loving Lord Jesus who understands the human heart and accepts us as we are."

The Ghost Walker opens with Father John's aging Toyota truck breaking down along the edge of the reservation during a winter blizzard. While walking through the snow, he stumbles upon a corpse. As the story unfolds, the financially struggling mission is about to be sold to developers who want to build a casino, and Vicky Holden's drug-addicted daughter moves In with some suspicious-looking characters.

Holden is on a chronic guilt trip for leaving her kids and her people behind when she left her abusive husband and earned a law degree. The cause-oriented attorney does everything in her power to convince other victims of domestic violence to get out, for their own sake and for the sake of their kids.

The old school building, which in the novels, Father John has turned into the Arapaho Museum. The real building was destroyed in the fall of 2002.
Regarding her female sleuth, Coel explains that she created Vicky Holden because she didn't want a "white man coming in and fixing everything for the Indians. I thought, I've got to have a strong Arapaho character."

Female sleuths are growing in popularity, says a librarian in Cincinnati, Ohio, when asked to explain why most copies of Coel's mysteries are checked out. Another reason is that Tony Hillerman's fans have discovered Margaret Coel.

Disciplined Writing Style
Coel says she writes mysteries because she likes to read them. "I like a plot; I like a narrative," she explains. "I like to see people in a situation and find out what they're going to do, how they're going to handle it. There's some resolution at the end."

She says she enjoys being transported by novels into another world, another culture: Tony Hillerman's Navajo world, Sharyn McCrumb's Appalachian world, Anne Perry's Victorian world. "While you're involved the puzzle, you learn about that world," she notes.

She was somewhat familiar with the Arapahos, who once roamed in search of buffalo over the area where she lived. She learns more about their world by heading northwest a few hundred miles each year to visit the Wind River Reservation. One especially moving experience was witnessing a Sun Dance powwow, she says, explaining that visitors are welcome but are asked to be respectful. Her fictional characters have become so real to her that she almost expects to meet them when she's at the reservation.

Sometimes these figments of the imagination surprise their creator. The first time Vicky Holden "did something that was totally unplanned, I deleted it because I was very structured," notes Coel, who was used to dealing with facts as a nonfiction writer. She reinserted Vicky's unplanned episode after learning it was O.K. when writing fiction.

Coel writes full-time from an office in the lower level of the home she has lived in since the early 1970's. She laughs recalling that she wrote four books using a typewriter. Now she uses a computer for writing and to perform some research on the Internet. But the former journalist still researches much information in books and other sources.

Margaret with some young friends at the Wyoming Indian High School on the reservation
In addition to the typical distractions involved in working at home, she explains that there's a herd of mule deer that often roams through the hillside yard—she has watched pregnant does give birth. "We had a mountain lion a few summers ago, and now we have a den of foxes," she notes, pointing to a breathtaking view of the backyard and nearby mountains from the all-glass rear wall of the living room. "I love it, but these are urban wildlife that have been run out of their natural habitat because of construction."

When writing a novel, Coel says, "I have a general idea of the plot and where it's going. Then I break that down into chapters so I know what's going to happen in each chapter."

She always has her manuscripts read before publication by an Arapaho friend to ensure "that I haven't said anything that would be offensive to them or that's just wrong." And she has Jesuit friends who are great resources, including Father Anthony Short, who spent many years at St. Stephen's Indian Mission on the Wind River Reservation and now is in Denver. "Sometimes I'll call him and say, 'Would a priest do that?'" She's pleased that the answer is usually in the affirmative.

In addition to being an accomplished writer, Coel is interested in helping other writers improve their craft. She focuses her volunteer efforts on giving writing workshops. Someday she hopes "to work in a literacy program, helping people learn to read."

Mixing Fact With Fiction
Margaret Coel grew up in the days when popular Western films and TV programs often presented a negative image of Native Americans. But that attitude was not part of her upbringing in what once was called "the Wild West."

In addition to writing historical fiction and nonfiction, Coel is a popular lecturer who has spoken about the history of the West throughout the United States and in Australia. Some of her recent presentations have been about the Plains Indian ledger books, the focus of her latest mystery, The Story Teller.

This fourth Wind River mystery centers on a missing Arapaho ledger book that could be worth millions of dollars. The Plains Indians used to trade furs and other goods for blank ledger books, which they used for recording historical events through detailed drawings known as pictographs. These pictographs have become valuable pieces of art. Thus, many of the books have been cut apart so the pages can be sold individually, but that destroys the continuity of the historic record.

"Scholars are just beginning to learn how to read them" to learn the Native American perspective, explains Coel. In one drawing of a battle scene, "the pictures were so detailed that historians were able to identify the guns that the soldiers used."

Coel recalls hearing a historian say how wonderful it would be if an intact ledger book would ever be found that illustrated Colorado's famous Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. "1 thought, Wow! This would be a great idea for a novel." So she fabricated the discovery of such a book and its effect, showing the way the past shapes the present in a fictional setting.

Although CoeI says she writes her fictional mysteries "strictly to entertain," her plots focus on serious topics such as alcoholism, drugs, domestic violence, poverty and greed. "I get my plots from the newspaper," explains Coel. She reads a few papers each day, and clips and saves any articles related to Native Americans. She acknowledges that being a former journalist influences her to write about real issues.

Sometimes a fictional plot becomes factual, she notes. For example, The Ghost Walker focuses on greedy developers attempting to build a casino on the financially troubled reservation. Right after the novel was published, Coel read that a casino on the Wind River Reservation was being considered. "I didn't think there ever would be [a casino] because it's so out of the way," she explains. "I guess they figure they can pick up some of the tourist traffic going to Yellowstone," if the casino ever becomes a reality.

She sums up her motivation for writing Western: "As a Westerner, I've always had a strong sense of place. You could say the West itself, with its colorful past and unique cast of characters, inspired me to tell some of its stories."