Father John O'Malley
(creator: Margaret Coel)


Margaret Coel
Father John Aloysius O'Malley is nearly 6ft 4in tall and is a redheaded Irishman from Boston who, after earning a place at Boston College through his skill at baseball had gone on, after graduation, into the Jesuit seminary.

"He hadn't expected the gift of his priesthood .... It was an unfolding that had begun when he was an altar boy serving the early morning Mass at St Mary's. As the bell jangled through the apse at the elevation of the host, the sense had come over him of God's presence in the world, and of the priest, holding the host high, witnessing that presence .... He had tried to stop his ears. When he looked into the future, he had seen himself with a wife and a bunch of kids." But that was nor to be. He gave up the girl he had thought of marrying, who, three months after he had gone off to seminary, "had run off and married his brother."

"He had taught American history at Jesuit prep schools back east for six years before what he called his Great Fall" - when the "ten-year love affair he'd conducted with alcohol .... became common gossip in the hallways and cafeteria." This was why, after rehab treatment, he'd been "exiled" by his Jesuit provincial to Wyoming, a move he had not welcomed at the time as his ambition had been to obtain a position at a Jesuit university. But "the more he had got to know the Arapahos, the more he had felt at home, as if his life had been pointed in the direction of St. Francis Mission all along".

His pale freckled skin, and permanently sunburned nose, might suggest that he is not ideally suited to life on the Great Plain, but he has found fulfilment here and wants to stay, particularly since, after three years, he had been promoted to superior. That was three years before we first meet him. He has made many friends among the Arapaho Indians, loves his work and, like his author, very much enjoys the local landscapes as he drives across the wide empty spaces in his old Toyota pickup, listening to tapes of La Traviata or La Bohème or Don Giovanni. Like the Arapahos, he was usually dressed "in cowboy boots and cowboy hat, and blue jeans and plaid shirt".

Looking back, he realised how "smooth and glib he'd been, full of the certainty and clarity of fifteen years of Jesuit training ... He'd learned a lot about faith since he'd been at Wind River Reservation, mostly about how it was something other than an intellectual exercise. There were no words, no lofty concepts, that could take away the pain (of those grieving). Faith was living with the pain."

The author was worried at first that Father John might seem too perfect which, she says, is why made him into a recovering alcoholic who could not help feeling some attraction for the beautiful and intelligent Arapaho lawyer, Vicky Holden. He found "he was enjoying talking quietly with this woman and walking alongside her". But what mattered most to him "was the peace at the center of himself, that place where the most important part of him lived, where he was a priest, a servant of the servants of God." To her he was "a calm and reassuring presence" but she had her own life to lead. To him, she was .... well, that's all part of the plot.


Margaret Coel (1937 - ) began as a historian, and became widely known as an expert on Arapaho Indians whom she has been studying and writing about for over 25 yhears. She researches her Arapaho books by going back to her source, the Wind River Reservation, every year, where, she says, she is always learning from her Arapaho friends. Most of her research on priests was done by talkng to them and reading about them.

After earning her BA at Marquette University, she did graduate work at the University of Colorado and attended Oxford University. At first she worked as a reporter, but then went on to publish four non-fiction history books, followed by twelve novels in the Father O'Malley/Vikky Holden series, as well as short stories. She is married (she acknowledges that it is her husband who "has always believed in me the most"}, and they had three children. A native of Colorado, she lives in Boulder.

The Eagle Catcher (1995)
The Eagle Catcher was inspired by the research the author had done for her historical book, Chief Left Hand. It is set on the windswept plains of Wyoming's Wind River Reservation where Arapahos are gathering for the Ehete powwow, a sacred time to reaffirm the balance and harmony of life. But then tribal chairman Harvey Castle is found stabbed to death - and, as a unpleasant FBI man points out, the knife has his nephew's initials on it.

Father John O'Malley, head pastor at the nearby St Francis Mission, does not believe in the young man's guilt, and sets about using all his Arapaho connections to find the truth. One of these is Vicky Holden, a lawyer in her early forties, who had been born an Arapaho. She had originally been given the name of Singing Deer, but "her mother called her Vicky because school was easier for Indian kids if they had names like white kids". But when she came back to the reservation after being away for seven years for her BA and law degree, and three more in a Denver law firm, the elders had given her a new name, Hi sei ci nihi: Woman Alone. It is she and a courageous Father John who eventually confront the killer.

There is quite a strong plot, and interesting material about the Arapahos, whose history the dead man had been writing. "There was oil on Wind River reservation. The irony never failed to amaze him (Father John). A hundred years ago nobody had wanted this desolate piece of real estate, windblown and sun-scorched all summer, adrift on freezing snow all winter. So the federal government had sent the Shoeshones to live here first, and then the Arapahos."

It is interesting too how, at the murdered man's funeral, Catholic and Arapaho rituals are combined: "The Catholic ritual would come first, then the Arapaho. Just because her (the widow's) people had converted to Catholicism didn't mean they'd given up the old ways of believing. Those beliefs were still strong as a lodgepole pine, with the new way merely grafted on." So the elder's "Arapaho words beseeched Shining Man Above to allow cedar's smoke to mark Harvey's way to the spirit world." Then "everyone reached for the smoke (from a smoking pan) that flumed along the rows of folding chairs. Vicky pulled the gray wisps toward her, breathing them in. Smudging (as this was called) made her feel connected to her people, to all living creatures." Quite what Father John makes of this is not explained - but he seems very accomodating about it all.

When Father John makes big enemies, he becomes increasingly worried that they will pressurise his Jesuit Provincial into removing him somewhere else - so he deliberately fails to phone him back. Quite how this fits in with his vow of obedience is not made plain. Indeed the whole Jesuit background is only lightly sketched in. What matters here is the author's understanding of, and sympathy with, the Arapahos, and her ability to tell a good story.

The Ghost Walker (1996)
The Ghost Walker gets off to a dramatic start with a blizzard in which Father John O'Malley's car breaks down in the snow and he finds a corpse in a ditch beside the highway. When he returns with the police, the body has (as you might guess) disappeared. The Arapahos of the Wind River start talking about ghost walkers - tormented souls caught between the earth and the spirit world. Then, within days, a young man disappears from the reservation without trace, and a young woman is found brutally murdered. And as Father John and Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden investigate these crimes, they realise that someone is following them. It all builds up to an exciting climax.

The portrayal of the Arapaho Indians is, as always, sympathetic and revealing. "It was only in silence, the Arahahos believed, that you could hear the Divine drawing near." They had painted the walls of their church "with sacred symbols: the lines and circles that symbolized the journey of life. Above the front door they had painted the figure of the crucified Christ, the staked warrior, like the warriors in the Old Time who had staked themselves to the ground so that enemies might vent their anger on them while the people escaped .... Father John knew the Arapahos considered the Mass only one of the many ways to worship the Great Mystery, the Shining Man Above. There couldn't be too many. He offered Mass for the body in the ditch."

Father John is appalled to find that his superiors are thinking of closing down his St Francis Mission, and selling out to a consortium that wants to build a "multi-million-dollar family recreation center on the mission site. Movie theaters, bowling alley, gymnasium, restaurants, the works." Even the Arapahos seem ready to accept the plan because of all the jobs it would bring them. So he turns to Vikky Holden for advice. But her ex-husband, Ben, now apparently recovered from alcoholism, has also come to her for help in tracking down their troubled daughter, Susan, who seems to have got herself embroiled with the same group of white men whom Father John goes on to suspect of being connected with the murders. It all gets quite exciting, too exciting for Father John, in fact, who finds himself tempted into buying himself a bottle of whiskey - but it makes quite a lively story, with interesting characters and settings .

The Dream Stalker (1997)
The Dream Stalker
is about plans to use the Wind River Reservation for a nuclear waste storage site. With promises of new jobs and millions in revenue, it sounds an attractive proposition for the Arapahos, but Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden is not willing to let it happen. With help from her old friend (and admirer) Father John O'Malley, she sets out to protect her land and people. But someone wants to keep Vicky - and anyone else who stands in the way - quiet, even if it means killing them. Attempts are made on Vikky's life, and there is a complicated and exciting climax in which she risks all to trap the killer.

As usual, the story gets off to a good start with Father John, who is almost 48 now, being summoned out after midnight in driving rain to meet a man who has 'phoned in to say he is dying. But he has been murdered before Father John gets there. Police Chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Art Banner, does not express any surprise at the frequency with which Father John stumbles upon dead bodies, beyond a laconic "What we got now?".

The relationship between Father John and Vicky has not made any progress. "He enjoyed working with her - he loved being with her - although he hadn't called her in almost three months. And she hadn't called him. It was as if they had reached an unspoken agreement not to spend so much time together." When he did place his arms around her (not typical Jesuit behaviour, surely?), "she felt the nerves in her body quickening ... She wanted to allow herself to melt into him, to give way to the emotions flooding through her, but she couldn't shake the awareness that they were crossing a line neither had wanted to cross. Once crossed, there would be no place for them - on this reservation, in this life. She laid her hands on his chest and gently pushed him away. 'You had better go,' she said, her eyes locked on his, pleading for understanding." It all sounds too much like a quote from a not-too-good romantic novel.

As does a later episode, when glamorous Sheila Cavanaugh, complete with reddish gold hair and "flashing eyes", pushes her way into his office and tells him "I have come to fetch you." Vicky at once rushes out of the door. "Wait, you don't understand," Father John tells her.
"I finally understand everything, Father O'Malley," she says. Then she is marching down the sidewalk, the black bag over one shoulder bouncing against the raincoat still on her arm. Father John could sense Sheila Cavanaugh behind him, could smell her perfume. He took a deep breath before he turned to face the most beautiful woman he wished he had never met."

Vicky emerges as a more convincing and stronger character than Father John, and in this story, although we alternate beween one and the other, she gets to play the more significant role. And she finds another boy friend. But we know it can't last. Not while Father John is still around.

Alcohol problems seem to loom large in these stories. Vicky's ex-husband had been an alcoholic. So was Father John. And even his new colleague, young Father Geoff, breaks the Mission rules by drinking whiskey. But then, before he'd been sent there, it turns out that he had had a six month love affair with a divorced woman. "It gets so damn lonely," he says.

But it too is an exciting story, and easy to read.

The Story Teller (1998)
The Story Teller is mostly set in Denver. An old Arapaho storyteller has told Vicky Holden that a priceless relic, a ledger recording an eyewitness picture account of the massacre of Indians at Sand Creek many years ago, had disappeared from a Denver museum who now deny all knowledge of it. Yet the old man remembered seeing it there, when he was a boy. According to NAGRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act, it should have been returned to the Arapahos.

The ledger, it turns out, is worth at least 1.3 million dollars - but there is now no trace of it. Then Vicky discovers that an Arapaho student mysteriously died while researching the ledger. Vicky and Father John join in a desperate search for it. Two more people are killed, and Vicky and John find themselves in real peril. It makes a strong story that hold the reader's interest thoughout

Like the previous books, it gets off to an interesting start with a short prologue that stirs the curiosity and ends in violence. You have to read on to discover its significance.

Father John is trying to persuade his provincial to let him convert the mission's old school building into a museum where the Arapahos can keep all the artifacts that are being returned to them. But the provisional's assistant tells him this is impossible as there would be too much "financial risk and worry. Too much pressure, Father O'Malley. And isn't it true? A recovering alcoholic is never far from the next drink." In fact, as John tells him, it is eight years since he has had a drink, so he won't take no for an answer, but sets off to drive the 500 miles "across the endless stretches of Wyoming plains" to Denver to see the provincial for himself - which, of course, is how he gets involved again with Vicky. They know they can have no future together, but are still prepared to risk their lives for each other.

There is plenty of action and excitement, as when Father John arrives home: "He grabbed the knob and flung open the door. Inside the killers were waiting for him". And it is good that the plot is so tightly bound up with Indian affairs. Recommended as the best book in the series so far.

The Lost Bird (1999)
The Lost Bird tells how old Father Keenan, who has returned to the St Francis Mission to help Father John out, is shot and killed. At first Father John suspects that the real target might have been himself, but then finds that there may be a connection with what happened 35 years before, when Father Keenan had been in charge and a whole series of Arapaho parents had been told that their newborn infants had died from contaminated water. But why then had the coroner insisted that they should all be buried in sealed coffins? And why did the coroner and one of the nurses involved commit suicide - or were they murdered?

Hollywood star Sharon David shows up in Vicky Holden's office and tells her that she was adopted. She commissions Vicky to see if she can track down her real parents. This leads Vicky to find out more about Dr Jeremiah Markham, a well-known expert in baby care, who had begun his career running the local clinic.

It is a fast-moving, well-paced story, and told in an interesting way, although few readers are likely to share Vikky's concern that it is Father John who may have been killed, as he is obviously too important a character for the author to lose. Another part where the plot gets decidedly novelettish, is when a young woman tells Father John that she is his grown-up daughter. Or so she thinks. No wonder he finds himself wanting a drink!

Vicky, who seems growing fonder of ex-husband Ben, plays a larger part than Father John in solving the case, and meets the more interesting people. In the end, she comes across as a more convincing character than him. The author, strong though she is on Arapahos (including the "mocassin telegraph" that sends rumors and/or hard facts chasing around the reservation), seems noticeably less happy with describing Jesuit life. But after two more deaths and lots of action, it reaches a violent dramatic climax, giving the police their usual chance of arriving in the nick of time.

The Spirit Woman (1999)
The Spirit Woman starts with Father John finding the remains of (yet another) dead body. The victim has been long dead. Then Laura Simmons, a college professor and long-time friend of Vicky Holden, disappears while researching on the reservation. She had been trying to track down a memoir, supposedly left by Sacajawea, the Indian woman who had helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition through the American wilderness in pioneer days. According to Arapaho and Shoshone legend, her final resting place is on the reservation.

As Father John and Vicky look into Laura's disappearance, they find that twenty years earlier another female historian had also disappeared on the reservation. And she too had been researching the life of Sacajawea. Indeed it is her research work that Laura was trying to complete. There must be someone who has his/her own reasons for not wanting this research published. Father John and Vicky again risk their own lives to track down the killer.

Father John, meanwhile, has been told by his provincial that, much to John's disappointment, the time has come for him to move on, and a young replacement, Father Kevin McBride, has already arrived. His provincial tells him, "I've seen other men like you. They start feeling too much at home .... Start thinking they are Indian." Then, he tells him he's also heard rumors about a woman. Father John explains that Vicky is now back with her husband, but he cannot get the provincial to change his mind. He had always known that "the vow of obedience was the hardest to live by" but "Give me the grace to obey," he prayed.

Vicky does not happily settle down again with her ex-husband, particularly when he turns violent again. It was because of his violent drunken attacks that she had originally left him. Beating and wife-beating seems to constantly recur in this book, there being three other women, including Laura Simmons, who have also suffered in this way. And Vicky herself has been helping at a woman's shelter for battered wives. You are left wondering why the author keeps repeating this theme so often.

The author's way of telling the story by alternating between Father John and Vicky is done with real skill, and without annoying the reader, so interest is held throughout. You wonder what is going to haappen next, but have the comfortable feeling that, come what may, the main characters are certain to survive - and that Father John won't ever really leave the mission.

Vicky is the most convincing character. Father John's alcohol problem (wanting a drink without ever actually having one) is getting a bit tedious, and his occasional lurches into violence (as when he faces up to Ben, or chases an intruder, or "slammed a fist into the Indian's jaw, then landed another blow at the man's chest as they stumbled backward), and his reluctance even to answer the provincial's phone calls, make him a less than altogether convincing Jesuit. But it is all very easy to read.


The Thunder Keeper (2001)
The Thunder Keeper describes how Father John O'Malley learns some startling news in the confessional. A stranger tips him off that a young Arapaho's death near the reservation's sacred space at Bear Lake wasn't suicide but murder, and that more murders are on the way.

Meanwhile, 500 miles away in Denver, a diamond mining executive contacts Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden, apparently because of her connection with Wind River Reservation, but he is murdered before he can give her any information. Father John and Vicky, working all that distance apart, discover that the murderous threads are connected. The author intercuts very effectively from one to the other, but without, as could so easily happen, annoying us in the process, even though this time the Father John episodes, with their Catholic background, are usually the more interesting. In the end, both are separately taken prisoner but we know that if they can keep their captors talking for long enough, rescue may come! The moral for would-be murderers: kill off your victims quickly while you still have the chance - especially if you're a character in a detective story.

Despite this slightly corny ending in which the murderers unnecessarily confess all, it is a strong story that, helped by short chapters, holds the attention throughout. There's a sub-plot too about Father John's assistant Father Don Ryan who gets accused of sexual misconduct towards a young woman, a situation with which Father John, ever thinking of the absent Vicky, can all too readily identify. But this does not stop him setting a trap to bring the suspected murderer out of hiding - even if so doing puts his own life in danger. Meanwhile Vicky has her own problems with her son Lucas who resents how she is "still getting involved in dangerous stuff, just like before." Both these situations are treated realistically and add to the human interest of the story. And, as always, the Arapaho Indian customs and traditions are most convincingly described.



Reviews of other books to follow.


The books can be compared to those feauring another Jesuit priest working in an Indian reservation, Father Mark Townsend by Father Brad Reynolds. The Townsend books are actually written by a Jesuit priest so show deeper understanding of what it means to be a Jesuit, but Margaret Coel is the more professional writer and her plots are better constructed and so more interesting.

The author has her own website. There is information about her and very interesting interviews with her on the bookreporter site.




Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!



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The Eagle Catcher
From first (above) to last (below) the series certainly goes in for colorful covers.
The Drowning Man
Coel signature
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