By Pat Browning
All smiles after a presentation in Fresno, Calif. are mystery writers (from left) Marilyn Meredith, who writes the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series; Victoria Heckman, whose series features Honolulu PD officer Katrina Ogden; JoAnne Lucas, co-author of VALLEY FEVER, a collection of short stories; Lorie Ham, author of the series featuring gospel singer Alexandra Walters; Pat Browning, author of ABSINTHE OF MALICE, first in a series featuring reporter Penny Mackenzie.
All except Heckman, who lives on the Central Coast and sets her books in Hawaii, write mysteries set in the Central San Joaquin Valley. Meredith lives in Springville, in the Southern Sierra foothills. Lucas lives in Clovis, adjacent to Fresno. Ham lives in the college town of Reedley, near Fresno. Browning lived in Hanford, south of Fresno, for many years. (Photo taken about 2002.)
“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” -- Okay, so I stole that line from THE MALTESE FALCON. Nice line, but in this case it refers to an Indian legend from Central California and the Yokuts Indian tribes who were the original inhabitants of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Researchers relate the Yokuts Hairy Man legend to the legends of Big Foot and Sasquatch.
I had never heard the Hairy Man legend until I read it in a mystery novel by my good friend Marilyn Meredith. She lives about an hour’s drive from Hanford, where I lived for many years. We did some book signings together and both belonged to the Fresno Chapter of Sisters in Crime. (I miss those days!)
Marilyn and her husband, Hap, have been a team for more than 50 years and are still going strong. Hap knows as much about her books as she does and he’s great at taking over for her when she needs a break at a book fair or festival.
Their long running love story began with a blind date in Southern California, in what sounds like an episode of “Happy Days.” Hap was in the navy at Port Hueneme. Marilyn was a high school senior in Eagle Rock. With two other couples they took the streetcar to Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles, where they danced the hours away. Later they took a taxi to one friend’s house, but the final ride never showed up, so Hap walked Marilyn home, a distance of three miles.
They arrived about 3 a.m., and Marilyn recalls that her parents “were wild.” It had never occurred to her to telephone them. Hap had no transportation at that hour so her parents let him sleep on the couch in the den. A few weeks later, he and Marilyn tied the knot.
They lived in Oxnard for more than 20 years, where four of their five children were born. Hap served in the Seabees, going to Vietnam three times. When Oxnard got too big and busy for them they moved to the foothills, where Marilyn’s forbears had settled in the early 1850s. Marilyn and Hap were in the residential care business until retirement.
But back to the legend of the Hairy Man.
I recently read DISPEL THE MIST, the latest book in Marilyn’s popular Tempe Crabtree series. Tempe is a deputy on an Indian reservation in Central California. Although Marilyn lives near the Tule River Reservation, she says in the book’s Preface that her fictional Bear Creek Reservation is just that – fictional; and while Yokuts tribes inhabited the San Joaquin Valley, the Yanduchi branch in the Tempe Crabtree mysteries is fictional.
However, the Indian legends in this book are real, beginning with How People Were Made. It features the Hairy Man, who outwitted Coyote in a race to ensure that people would walk upright. The book’s cover is designed from Hairy Man pictographs at Painted Rock on the Tule River.
In an interview on the blog of paranormal fiction author Lynda Hilburn, Marilyn says: “The moment I stepped inside the rock shelter and spotted the pictograph of the Hairy Man and his family, I knew that my heroine, Tempe Crabtree, would not only visit this sacred place at night—which I’d been warned against doing—I also knew she would have an encounter with the Hairy Man.”
The book opens on an uneasy note. Deputy Tempe Crabtree and her husband Hutch, the community pastor, attend a blessing ceremony at the new Indian casino. The casino manager’s announcement of plans to build a hotel, golf course and indoor amphitheater gets a cool reception from the guest of honor, Lilia Quintera, a member of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors.
Meanwhile, another controversy brews at a new gated community nearby. Someone bought one of the larger homes and plans to turn it into a residential facility for developmentally disabled women, much to the displeasure of the other homeowners. Lilia Quintera’s niece Suzy, who has Down Syndrome, will be one of the residents.
Following the facility’s open house and a nasty encounter with a pharmacist named Duane Whitney, Lilia Quintera has a fatal heart attack. Tempe is assigned as a temporary special investigator because of her Indian heritage.
Quintera’s parents are suspicious of Lilia’s husband Wade, a trauma unit nurse with a reputation as a Casanova. When he doesn’t show up at Lilia’s funeral, Tempe goes to the house and finds him bleeding from a half-hearted suicide attempt. Suspicion also falls on Lilia’s younger sister Connie, who is Suzy’s mother. Tempe’s investigation reveals that Connie and Wade were having an affair.
Seeking insight into the tangle of suspects, Tempe calls on Nick Two John who has previously instructed her on how to use the supernatural aspects of her Indian culture. He supervises the kitchen at the Bear Creek Inn, owned by his significant other, Claudia Donato. Construction of a new casino hotel will cut into their business but Tempe dismisses any thought of Nick or Claudia being involved in murder.
Nick reminds Tempe that poisonous plants grow wild on the reservation. A few belladonna leaves made into a tea and slipped into Lilia’s cup at the open house could cause a fatal heart attack.
Back on the rez, Tempe sees a coyote and flashes back to her grandmother’s story of how animals scatter to forage for food when People multiply and take over the food supply. Exceptions are Dog, who decides to make friends with People in hopes they will feed him, and Hairy Man, who opts to come out only at night when People are asleep.
A pattern emerges. Grandmother’s stories lead to dreams that become nightmares. A late night phone call warns Tempe to stay away from Painted Rock. Puzzled and curious, Tempe and Hutch go to the rez to visit old acquaintances Jake and Violet. Jake takes them out to Painted Rock, where they see pictographs of animals and Hairy Man. It’s a busy place, with a rehab center and a sweat lodge located nearby, but Jake warns Tempe not to come out at night: “Too many spirits are here at night. Not all of them are good.”
The story builds slowly. This is a small book – 206 pages – and for the first 148 pages Tempe makes a pest of herself, asking questions but without proof that Lilia’s death was anything except a natural heart attack. When the supernatural aspects of Tempe’s Indian heritage kick in the story takes off in a dead run. The killer overplays his hand by luring Tempe out to Painted Rock at night, leading to a heart-stopping denouement.
As Shakespeare so wisely observed, all’s well that ends well, and DISPEL THE MIST ends on an upbeat note, including Tempe’s recipes for Quick Beef Stroganoff and Macaroni and Cheese.
Legends of a big hairy creature, often called Bigfoot, have been around for hundreds of years. In the U.S. sightings have been reported in every state except Hawaii, which has its own legends. The number of reported sightings ranges from two in Delaware to 493 in Washington State.
Readers interested in Bigfoot/Sasquatch legends can read more at The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, http://www.bfro.net/
Marilyn Meredith’s web site is at http://www.fictionforyou.com/
Photo of Marilyn and Hap Meredith taken at EPICon 2004, the electronic publishing convention at the Westin Hotel in Bricktown, Oklahoma City.