- Black Silk Handkerchief: A Hom-Astubby Mystery
D. L. Birchfield has written a very funny book. This murder mystery offers nods to classic examples of the genre and manages to have a lot more going on than the unfortunate death and subsequent investigation of which our protagonist is a crucial part. Hom-Astubby, also known as William Mallory, is an outdoor photographer of Choctaw heritage. Within the first chapter, we learn of his bumpy career working as a photojournalist for, and being fired from, a string of small western newspapers. His "casual" book-keeping as a freelancer led to harassment by the IRS, which in turn propelled him into law school. However, having a new law degree in hand causes him so much anxiety that he can't bring himself to actually practice law. Instead, Hom-Astubby travels the world with field-and-stream types photographing their adventures for various magazines and publishing photography how-to textbooks on the side. His unique way of making life choices brings Hom Astubby remarkably good luck and equally unfathomable degrees of anxiety requiring a perpetual search for some equilibrium in his life. As Birchfield writes, "He didn't want to go through life never having a moment of peace, not knowing for sure whether he had settled in for a leisurely stroll along Easy Street or might be headed for a long stretch in a federal penitentiary" (11).
Birchfield judiciously presents Choctaw culture and tribal history. Excerpts from the 1802 and 1803 U.S. treaties with the Choctaw appear in the foreword citing a list of goods given in exchange for Choctaw land; among the paltry terms is one black silk handker-chief, an item symbolic to Hom-Astubby for his family's involvement in the negotiations. Elsewhere, Choctaw social structure gets some review via Hom-Astubby's personal ruminations on his social interactions with the descendents of European immigrants. Hom-Astubby is not one to live in either a romanticized or bitter past. He enjoys his job and does what he can to avoid the stress that seems to go along with contemporary urban society. A regular [End Page 90] guy, he still gets caught up in forces that he can't fail but notice are very similar to those that dispossessed his family and tribe two hundred years earlier. Among them are power brokers in public offices who often fail to protect the rights of the less powerful and a paparazzi approach to journalism that serves up gossip in place of usable information.
Hom-Astubby has plenty of back story, including hitting a progressive jackpot at a New Mexico Indian casino for eight million dollars and then buying a horse ranch from eccentric billionaire Arlington Billington just weeks before the man dies. Fear of the IRS and his own blood-sucking lawyers sends Hom-Astubby fleeing to another outdoor assignment, where his sharp (photographer's) eye for detail drops him right into the middle of this book's adventure. He discovers the half-naked body of a beautiful woman and can't resist making a few photographs of her and her playful companion, a huge Newfoundland dog. Hom-Astubby reports his discovery to local Sheriff Klewlusz (whose amiable, attentive nature contradicts Birchfield's choice of name), and events soon get spun into full-fledged media circus. Suspicion and fear circulates around Nelson Towers, a developer and multinational corporate overlord who is creating a personal estate of royal proportions by buying up private land and cutting off access to surrounding public lands. It comes as no surprise when Hom-Astubby realizes Towers is the man responsible for the series of newspaper buyouts that repeatedly left him without a job. While still a photojournalist, Hom-Astubby pursued an investigation into Towers's business practices and made himself an enemy in the process. But Towers isn't the only one trying to use the mountains as a hideout. Birchfield offers plenty of twists and parallel plots to keep outcomes unforeseen until the final chapter.