Ancient Lands and New Wounds in the “Cash Murder Mystery Series” – Chicago Review of Books


Marcie Rendon’s mystery novels simultaneously inform and entertain readers, presenting current Native American issues through her heroine’s efforts to solve crimes perpetrated against society’s more vulnerable members in the early 1970s. When the Cash Blackburn series’ third volume opens, a body surfaces in the Red River Valley’s meltwater; the spring floodwaters on this North American prairie have risen in previous novels, but Rendon’s succinct characterization ensures that readers who meet this nineteen-year-old Ojibwe woman for the first time in Sinister Graves will be swiftly engaged.

In Rendon’s debut, Murder on the Red River, she establishes Cash’s connection to the Valley as vital and enduring: “The land had never hurt her or left her. It fed and supported her in ways that humans never had.” One human is an exception—Sheriff Wheaton. He is literally a supporting character, having met Cash when she was a girl caught in the foster system; now she’s applying for college and Wheaton’s name is alongside hers on the application.

Cash steps into the series indoors, however—into a bar saturated with “stale beer, cigarette smoke, sawdust and billiard chalk.” She makes her rent by playing pool and harvesting crops; resourcefulness and determination gaining her entrance to traditionally male-dominated spheres. Whether itinerant workers or students far from home, Rendon is particularly sympathetic to characters who struggle with addiction and poverty, violence and mental health, often alongside inherited and experienced trauma. 

In Girl Gone Missing, Cash’s backstory unfolds further: “With hope gone, at eleven years old, she had taken to furtively smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, both of which seemed to make it all a bit more bearable.” She queries how fears took root: “The stream of students passing in the halls made her feel claustrophobic. She was used to the open fields of the prairie.”

Memories of early life on the White Earth Reservation (in present-day northern Minnesota) figure in Sinister Graves too: “Cash didn’t remember the last big flood. It had happened when she was still a toddler.” Her campus classes spark internal conflict, when she compares textbook theories to the unmet needs that characterized her childhood: “She didn’t write about how she secretly questioned Maslow’s hierarchy [of needs]…she wrote the paper the professor wanted, the paper that would get her an A.” 

Rendon’s streamlined prose prioritizes plot and story, but she consistently nourishes readers’ attachment to Cash with relatable observations. Cash’s attention-to-detail underscores her usefulness in Sheriff Wheaton’s investigations of crimes connected to Native American communities, but Rendon builds character in ordinary moments too. “In a habit developed in childhood, she started eating the Bismarck on a rounded edge away from the jelly, saving the jelly-filled center for last.” Even as a girl, Cash protected everyday life’s small pleasures. As an adult, she rarely discloses her emotions, but readers glimpse them through details: “She scooped up all the cards, shuffled them a few times and laid out a new [Solitaire] game, ready for Mo whenever he returned.”

Cash moves steadily towards a confrontation with her past and, when she sees the body of a young Native American woman in Sinister Graves, she is both affected and dissociated: “She was too young to be Cash’s mother and too old to be her sister, neither of whom Cash had seen in sixteen years. Cash shook her head, more to her own thoughts than to anything either man [the sheriff and the coroner] in the room was saying.” Reading about Cash while she is in the process of becoming adds urgency and intensity.

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Wheaton appeals for Cash’s assistance in certain cases because of her remarkable sense of intuition: “She didn’t think he understood exactly how she knew what she knew, but he trusted her knowing.” In Sinister Graves, while informally assisting, Cash meets Jonesy on the reservation, who recognizes and validates Cash’s abilities. “Not everything can be explained the way the schools or the churches would want us to think they can be,” Jonesy says, inviting readers to consider whether all mysteries need to be solved.

Setting aside the enduring debate on the distinction between literary and genre fiction, Rendon’s stories create a world for Cash that readers will want to inhabit. There’s Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” and Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” on the radio; in the corner of the Casbah, the bartender watches an episode of Marcus Welby, MD or The Mod Squad; the din of the pool table and ordinary conversations about Valley life hold sway in the face of darkness. “Sometimes the darkness is our own fears,” Jonesy says: “You just have to keep your mind and heart on what you’re here for.”

Sinister Graves
by Marcie Rendon
Soho Press
Published October 11, 2022


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