Apocalypse in tartan and war paint
Original Death: A Mystery of Colonial America by Eliot Pattison (Counterpoint, $26)
Eliot Pattison is a great mystery writer, best known for his Inspector Shan series, set in Tibet and featuring an exiled Chinese detective. Original Death is the third entry in his “Bone Rattler” series, set in Colonial America and featuring Duncan McCallum, a Scots immigrant who fled the destruction of the clans to the New World. He’s aided in both his spiritual and emotional growth by Conawaga, a Jesuit-trained Nipmuc wise man with connections throughout the Iriquois Confederacy.
Original Death takes place during the French and Indian War, and has at its heart a massacre that bears resemblance, as Pattison notes in the foreward, to the historical massacre of eleven Christian Delawares at the Gnadenhutten settlement in Pennsylvania. It’s the first, but not the only, plot point drawn from the real history of the times, including his heartrending portrayal of “ghostwalkers,” former captives returned to white society who were never again able to get their bearings in either world.
In this story, what should be a simple journey to the Bethel Village settlement of Christian Mohawks finds a massacre has taken place and all the native inhabitants—as well as one soldier from a Scots regiment in the British Army—have been killed. The British blame McCallum, which forces him to get to the bottom of a mystery that includes a stolen British payroll, a religious maniac renegade chief who calls himself the Revelator and is pressuring the Iriquois Confederacy to abandon their loyalty to the British, and what seems to be a supernatural war on the “other side” which could result in the end of the world.
Pattison puts together a fast-paced and riveting story with a reluctant and guilt-ridden hero in Duncan McCallum. Original Death avoids the typical pitfall for an historical mystery novel, in that the mystery has the power to affect history, but is compelling and believable enough that we can forget what we know about how it turned out. This ability to displace our own foreknowledge of the historical reality is a testament to how good Pattison is—and leads us to hope that we see more of Duncan, Conawago, and the characters introduced in this novel.