If I could channel the spirit of any author to mentor me, it would be the late James D. Doss of Los Alamos, New Mexico. I discovered him through a review in New Mexico Magazine and read all seventeen of his Charlie Moon mysteries, some of them more than once, and I know I’ll read the whole series again. Though I don’t attempt to write like Doss—no one else could—he influenced me greatly as a writer of unconventional and mystical mysteries, where the ordinary and the spiritual meet.
Here’s a short list of the things I love about Doss’s books:
- Characters. Complex and eccentric, they surprise the reader. I love the ongoing characters and the unique, colorful people introduced in each of the books. My favorite one-book character is six-year-old Butter Flye in The Night Visitor. Doss wrote child characters with unsentimental realism. Butter is tough and strange and yet likeable, and I have never laughed louder or longer reading any book, let alone a mystery, than I did when I read the encounter between Charlie’s irascible aunt, the shaman Daisy Perika, and Butter in the back seat of a truck.
- Spirituality. The visionary experiences that Daisy and her ward Sarah Frank have are written in a way that makes me feel as if I’ve taken the shaman’s journey with them. The spirit world is integrated seamlessly with earthy realism and humor that says Doss understood this aspect of Indian culture: the sacred and the comic are not opposite or incompatible. He mixed Catholic mysticism into the books as well with beauty and sensitivity, another Southwest truth. Many people adhere to both Native religions and Catholicism at the same time. My favorite character for expressing that unique blend of spiritual worldviews is Nahum Yacitii, the old Ute shepherd who apparently ascended to heaven in a windstorm and comes back to visit the few who can see him.
- Language. I read a Doss book and I am in the place. When he takes us for walk in the Canyon of the Spirits with Daisy, I hear every step and smell and feel the air. Even the description of the nervous, jerky second hand of a ticking clock is a marvel of observation that sets the mood of a scene perfectly. (I leave you to find this treasure, also in The Night Visitor.)
- Mastery of the omniscient narrator. Most writers can’t pull this off, but Doss could show the thoughts of every character in a scene without causing the slightest confusion or disorientation in the reader, often to humorous effect. He could even use the point of view of an animal—a bird, a deer, or a prairie dog—as the only witness to an event, and make it work.
- Hanging out with the guys. Doss wrote real, not hyper-masculine, male characters. Charlie often fails to understand the women around him, but he does it so sincerely I like him for it. The friendship and repartee between Charlie and Scott give me a sense of hanging out with the guys in a way a woman doesn’t often get a chance to in real life, even when some of her best friends are men.
- Humor. I get a kick out tall tales Charlie Moon tells just for the fun of it, pulling people’s legs. While the essence of each book is serious, dealing with life and death and love, there is a layer of humor as well, coming from the genuine interactions between characters and from their various eccentricities. Daisy is a spiritual visionary and also a quirky, cranky old lady.
Doss resolved the tangles of Charlie’s love life finally in the last book. I wonder if there were more books in his mind when he left this world, though. Daisy was the oldest living member of the Southern Ute tribe, and Sarah Frank, a young adult by the end of the series, was trained—somewhat—as Daisy’s shaman’s apprentice. Was Sarah destined to inherit all the spirits in the canyon, and the ancient little spirit-man living in a badger hole, the pitukupf? I’ll never know. It’s the sign of a good series, though—I still think about it. The characters live on.
This is revised from a tribute to Doss originally posted on http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com.