Aimee and David Thurlo are the authors of the Ella Clah series, featuring a former Navajo FBI agent who becomes head of a tribal police unit; the series’ sixteenth installment, Black Thunder, is just out. The Ella Clah books have earned critical praise from a wide variety of sources. A New York Times Book Review critic noted that “Clah is always good company, on and off the reservation,” while Romantic Times had this to say of the protagonist: “Ella is compelling as a highly skilled officer of the law dealing with modern vs. traditionalist issues on the reservation.”
The Thurlos have been married for almost forty years and have been writing novels together for nearly that long, in a variety of genres including romance, young adult, and mystery. They have three ongoing mystery series, the Sister Agatha series, starring a cloistered nun, the Lee Nez series, featuring a Navajo vampire who teams up with a female FBI agent to fight crimes that have elements of the supernatural, and the works featuring Ella Clah.
Booklist had special praise for the Ella Clah series, noting: “The Thurlos are such deft hands at setting and mood that it’s hard not to say “ahhhh” when sinking under the spell of one of their mysteries. One of the special pleasures of the Ella Clah novels is the way the authors develop their overall theme of ‘walking in beauty’ (being able to find the balance between positive and negative forces in life).”
Aimee and David, it’s a real pleasure to have you both on Scene of the Crime. Let’s start things off with a discussion of your connection to the southwest.
David’s family moved to the community of Shiprock at the age of three, and he grew up on the Navajo Nation. He was part of a small Anglo minority among the Diné, the Navajo people, and quickly adapted to life on the `Rez. His father worked for the Bureau of Mines at the Navajo Helium Plant, where helium was extracted from natural gas, and his family lived near the Kerr-McGee uranium mill. Later, David’s home and his entire neighborhood were found to be hotbeds of radioactive contamination and were subsequently demolished and buried. When we decided to begin a mystery series, David’s home and background were key in making the decision to create our Ella Clah character and her family. We visit the Navajo Nation frequently – our latest visit included a presentation at David’s former high school in Shiprock.
What things about the Four Corners make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
The Four Corners, with the stark desert, high mesas, forested river valleys, and the mountains to the west and north, provide an endless variety of backgrounds and locales for our stories. Combine that with the Traditional and Modern cultures existing side by side inside and outside the Rez, and the possibilities are endless. A thirty minute drive can take our readers from the most isolated log hogan (a structure that can be a home for traditional Navajos, or a place where Navajo ceremonies take place) in the midst of a piñon forest, to a dry arroyo with nary a blade of grass in sight. The blue skies and endless vistas are essential backdrops in nearly every scene. There are also large towns in and around the Navajo Nation for those who find more of a connection to an urban setting.
Did you consciously set out to use your location as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Our stories are character driven, but the Navajo Nation is very much a part of The People and their culture. Including the background seamlessly into our novels became a natural process.
Many of our scenes are actual places that David is familiar with, and the natural flow of any action scenes are a result of those specific locales and the motivation of our characters. We are careful to get factual details correct, such as old bridges, public buildings, and directions, but we make sure that the story won’t lead readers to an actual private address. Naturally we also take literary license and add, remove, or extend distances for the purposes of the scenes. In Black Thunder, for instance, we shifted the tribal fence just a little to the east near the Hogback for dramatic purposes. This is a locale drawn directly from David’s childhood experiences. He often visited friends who lived within a stone’s throw of that natural formation.
How does Ellah Clah interact with her surroundings?
Ella Clah is Navajo, a former FBI agent who is now head of a tribal police unit. She grew up near Shiprock, and was raised in a conflicted household that made her childhood difficult. Her Navajo father was a Modernist – a fundamentalist preacher – and her mother a Traditionalist Navajo who follows the old tribal ways. Not knowing which direction to turn, Ella got married right out of high school and moved away. She was soon widowed and ended up joining the FBI. When her father was murdered, Ella returned to the tribe, an outsider among her own people. (See Blackening Song)
Over the years, Ella has been walking the line between Traditionalists and Modernist Navajos in a continual struggle to find her own path.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
They love our books. A few months ago we were invited to speak at David’s old high school in Shiprock. It was really fun for both of us and the kids were just terrific. Then that evening we spoke to a huge crowd of adults at the Navajo Nation’s performing arts center. We couldn’t have asked for a better reception. In September, on the strength of our books featuring Navajos, we were also asked to judge the Miss Indian New Mexico pageant.
We’ve also had our Ella Clah appear in German translations. One book that contained a short story using our protagonist won an award that made us laugh. It was the most stolen book at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
David knows the locale too well to really mess up, but I have a problem with action scenes. One time I had “exploding IUDs”. I meant IED, but it looked right to me, so I never caught the mistake. Then David saw it, and started laughing. My action scenes do that to him.
Of the Ella Clah novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
In Black Thunder, the very well-known Hogback (a tall, steep, geologic feature visible for many miles) is adjacent to the `scene of the crime’. This is important because this formation runs along the boundary between tribal and county land, hence the jurisdictional conflict woven into the story between the various law enforcement agencies.
When several murder victims are unearthed, some on county land, others just yards away on the `Rez, Special Investigator Ella Clah has to cooperate not only with the FBI, but also with the sheriff’s department. Nearby are the ruins of an old trading post, (which, by the way, is actually there). In the story, however, it’s occupied by a homeless Navajo family that may have accidentally witnessed one or more of the murders.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
Tony Hillerman is at the top of the list of our favorite authors. This past weekend we found a private note he’d written us congratulating us on the Ella Clah novels. The man was truly a class act. He was there for us at a time when we needed all the encouragement we could get. I still remember one of my first phone conversations with him before we’d started our Ella Clah series. Tony told me to send him the manuscript we’d just finished. I was embarrassed thinking that he thought it was a mystery when in actuality it was romantic suspense. I hemmed and hawed, then finally told him, “Tony, it’s a romance.” There was a pause at the other end before he answered, “So? What do you think? I read only Hemingway?”
What’s next for Ella Clah?
When Ella is called to the scene of a crime she discovers the victim is someone from her past. We’re also playing with the possibility of giving her a new full time boyfriend, but we’re still trying to decide on who that should be.
Aimee and David, thanks so much for taking the time to visit with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information on the works of Aimee and David Thurlo, visit their home page.