The True Grist of Oklahoma Thrillers
Oklahoma!—a mostly bouncy show—also has a murder in it.
My native state has only been a state for about a hundred years. Long before statehood, the land was traversed by nomadic hunting tribes like the Kiowas and Comanches. It was also tilled by agricultural tribes like the Caddos and Wichitas. Tribes forcibly removed there from elsewhere, like the Chickasaws and Muscogee Creeks and their African slaves, were first given communal, sovereign nation-states in Indian Territory. Then they were robbed of their land and given allotments. Plains tribes were slaughtered, survivors herded into camps.
Anglo outlaws fled into I.T., pursued by U.S. Marshalls like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. After statehood, notorious scofflaws like Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde dodged the law on rutted backroads. In 1921 white mobs invaded Tulsa’s wealthy black Greenwood District, killing hundreds of black men, women and children and burning the homes of 10,000 black citizens. Oil-rich Osage Indians were stabbed and shot and dynamited by greedy Anglo husbands and their kin.
The land we belong to may be, as the state anthem crows, “grand,” but historical injustices fester there. And they are kindled by oil, meth, coal, mobsters, racists, and heinous crooks of all stripes.
Here are five Oklahoma thrillers that tap the magma.
- Jim Thompson, Cropper’s Cabin (1952). Noir, Oklahoma, 1952. So noir, the narrator Tommy’s Pa, a share-cropping, scripture-spouting Mississippi bigot, left his wife to die giving birth to Tommy so Pa could spend a week with a whore named Mary—the woman who raises Tommy in Oklahoma. So noir that in one day Mary is bedded by both father and son. But Thompson has much bigger fish to fry. In a topsy-turvy class war, Tommy, who has spent his youth hoeing and picking cotton, is wrongly convicted of murdering his girlfriend’s father, Matthew Intime, a wealthy Indian plantation owner. Tommy’s high school teachers hire a ruthless Oklahoma City lawyer named Kossmeyer, who schools Tommy in the jailhouse: “Justice isn’t blind. She’s a cross-eyed drunk with the d.t.’s and a hearing aid and she doesn’t know Shinola unless you shove it under her nose.” He vows to smear the prosecution “like dog crap on a dance floor.”
- Lou Berney, November Road (2018) Marcello mobster Frank Guidry, fleeing New Orleans after he is linked to the Kennedy assassination, befriends an Oklahoma mother, Charlotte, and her two daughters, who are themselves in flight from a brutal husband and father. Guidry’s former associates trail for them in a wild pursuit across the west. Facing down his old boss, Carlos Marcello, back in New Orleans, Guidry says, “I’ll tell the feds and the newspapers and Earl Warren, too.” It’s an anti-hero’s gambit; the fates of his Oklahoma charges are in the balance.
- William Bernhardt, Primary Justice (1991). Bernhardt’s novice lawyer Ben Kinkaid joins a prestigious Tulsa law firm in debt to oil, and quickly finds himself immersed in a criminal plot hatched by one of its lackeys. Ben and his friends scuttle through into the lurid alleys and clubs of Tulsa’s demimonde in search of the truth. In the climax, Kincaid confronts the villain, smashes a lamp bulb and brandishes its “jagged pieces of glass and tungsten.”
- Sarah Sue Hoklotubbe, The American Café (2011). Sadie Walela is the Cherokee owner of The American Café, in Liberty, Oklahoma, near Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. (One of the characters is said to have been, yes, “conceived in Liberty.”) Walela and her policemen friend and fellow Cherokee Lance Smith negotiate a wild labyrinth of score-settling, bank fraud, racist revenge, and mysterious adoption. Sadie twice finds herself at the business end of a .410 shotgun. In a rich intertribal sequence, a Muscogee Creek veteran attending the funeral for a fellow Creek Vietnam Marine veteran reminds the Cherokee Lance Smith that Cherokees joined Andrew Jackson to defeat Creek warriors. In 1814. In Alabama.
- Elmore Leonard, The Hot Kid (2005). Most every celebrity who set foot in 1920’s Oklahoma figures into this lawman’s saga: Amelia Earhart, Bonnie and Clyde, Louis Armstrong, Will Rogers. After a robber guns down a tribal policeman in a drug store, he calls young Carlos Webster a “greaser.” The die is cast: Carlos kills a cattle thief and is reborn as U.S. Marshall Carl Webster, known as the Hot Kid for his quick draw and dead aim. Near the showdown, as America’s most wanted fugitive Jack Belmont stalks Carl through pecan groves and alfalfa fields, Jack stops to roast a thieved chicken with his partner Walter. Jack shoots Walter, grabs the roasted bird, and uses the dead man’s teeth to open his beer bottle. “He broke off a couple of molars before he got the cap off.” Leonard at his best.
USA Today bestseller Kris Lackey is the Blackstone Publishing author of Nail’s Crossing and Greasy Bend, the first two books in the Bill Maytubby and Hannah Bond mystery series. The third volume, Butcher Pen Road, will appear in 2021. He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.