Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
It’s been some time since I read an installment of the DreadfulWater Mysteries. Too long. The Red Power Murders (2017) was my first. With the latest Thomas King mystery about to launch, I decided to catch up with Obsidian, released in 2020. Plus, I love the shiny black volcanic rock, so was enticed by the title. While reading ex-cop Thumps DreadfulWater’s adventures, I could hear King’s voice narrating, and that got me thinking about his mocking comedy style, and where I first heard it.
Way back in 1997, King created CBC Radio’s Dead Dog Café, where he played straight man to Jasper Friendly Bear and Gracie Heavy Hand in the fictional town of Blossom, Alberta. I used to listen and laugh along with the fifteen-minute CBC episodes on the car radio while driving my daughter to taekwondo. If you’ve never heard Indigenous satire at its finest, you can catch episodes of it on youtube. I’d previously read Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water while attending Trent University’s Indigenous Studies program. The latter is a 1993 Trickster novel, nominated for the Governor General’s Award. I add this preamble because the DreadfulWater Mysteries echo the same wry, ironic tone that characterizes King’s writing while offering a classic who-done-it mystery that will appeal to all those who love crime novels.
Obsidian takes Thumps back six years to a tragic time when he was a deputy sheriff and his girlfriend, Anna, and her daughter, Callie, were killed by a serial killer on the Northern California Coast. It doesn’t get much worse than that. They never caught the guy, who killed eight other people during his killing spree. Perhaps that’s why Thumps has given up law enforcement to become a photographer—something that Thomas King does exceptionally well. Check out his photos here. DreadfulWater’s ancestry is Cherokee, as is King’s. I feel an alter-ego lurking here.
Thumps returns to Chinook, only to discover that a Ms. Maslowe, the producer of a true-crime reality TV show who’s investigating “The Obsidian Murders,” had come to town to talk to him but was subsequently murdered. Moreover, Maslowe was found with a piece of obsidian in her mouth—the trademark of the original serial killer. Is he now in Chinook or is this a copycat killer? Either way, the news leaves Thumps feeling both troubled and curious.
Naturally, there’s a café in Chinook populated by funny friends. The banter between Thumps, Cooley Small Elk, and Moses Blood is reminiscent of the characters at Dead Dog Café. The story is largely plot-driven and heavy in dialogue—humorous dialogue—which is no surprise since King is also a screenwriter. I’m surprised the Thumps DreadfulWater Mysteries haven’t been purchased for screen yet. With their Canadian/Indigenous humour, they’d make a splash—think Schitt’s Creek merged with Blackstone.
Maslowe has left Thumps a name—Raymond Oaks—who, it turns out, was Anna’s husband before he was sent to prison for life (robbery-homicide) and released on a technicality just around the time of the killings. Thumps is enlisted by Sheriff Duke Hockney to help investigate the murder and joined by his slick deputy-friend, Leon Ranger.
Not long after, Thumps is approached by a strange trio of film producers—Mercer, Gerson, and Shipman—who’ve come to Chinook to make a cable movie based on the Obsidian murders. “People, it seemed, liked to be disgusted, liked to be terrified, and broadcasters without borders had quickly learned to mine this deep and disturbing vein in the American psyche” (89). King is a masterful storyteller who writes ironically about his own work, and peppers his stories with political opinion, satire, sage wisdom, and the occasional belly laugh. If you’ve never read him, this is a great way in.
There are several characters embedded in this edition whom I want to know more about. That means going back to the beginning with DreadfulWater, originally published in 2002. Obsidian can be read as a standalone mystery but would definitely be richer with more background and description. These characters can quickly become old friends worth knowing. Check out The DreadfulWater Mysteries for a seductive and respectfully irreverent read you can’t put down.
Obsidian is published by HarperCollins, 2020
W. L. Hawkin’s latest release, Lure: Jesse & Hawk is a small-town romantic suspense novel set on a Chippewa reservation in the American Midwest. She publishes with Blue Haven Press.