Coel, Margaret 1937–

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Coel, Margaret 1937–

(Margaret Speas Coel


Born October 11, 1937, in Denver, CO; daughter of Samuel F. (a railroad engineer) and Margaret Speas; married George W. Coel (a dentist), July 22, 1962; children: William (deceased), Kristin M., Lisa M. Education: Marquette University, B.A., 1960; graduate study at University of Colorado; attended Oxford University. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Skiing, hiking, biking, competitive tennis, and travel.


Home—Boulder, CO. E-mail—[email protected].


Writer and journalist. Westminster Journal, Westminster, CO, reporter, 1960-61; Boulder Daily Camera, Boulder, CO, feature writer, 1972-75; freelance writer, 1972-90, 1995—; University of Colorado, Boulder, writing instructor, 1985-90. Fellow, University of Nebraska Center for Great Plains Studies. Member of board of directors, Historic Boulder. Guest lecturer at universities, including University of Colorado, University of Nebraska, Pennsylvania State University, and Marquette University, and at libraries, writers conferences, and numerous groups and organizations.


International Association of Crime Writers, American Crime Writers League, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Michener Society, Henry James Society, Colorado Authors League (member of board of directors, 1987-92; president, 1990-91), Denver Women's Press Club.


Fellow at Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, 1981; Best Nonfiction Book of the Year Award, National Association of Press Women, 1981, for Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapahoe; Top Hand Award for best nonfiction book by a Colorado Author, Colorado Authors League, 1986, for Goin' Railroading: A Century of the Colorado High Iron; Byline Award, Marquette University, 1998; Colorado Book Award, 2000, for The Spirit Woman, 2002, for The Shadow Dancer, and 2004, for Wife of Moon; Best Mystery Novel Award, Colorado Center for the Book, 2000, for The Spirit Woman; Willa Cather Award for Best Novel of the West, Women Writing the West, 2001, for The Spirit Woman; Best Mystery Novel Award, Colorado Center for the Book, 2002, for The Shadow Dancer; Colorado Authors League Award, 2003, for The Shadow Dancer.



The Eagle Catcher, University Press of Colorado (Niwot, CO), 1995.

The Ghost Walker, Berkley (New York, NY), 1996.

The Dream Stalker, Berkley (New York, NY), 1997.

The Story Teller, Berkley (New York, NY), 1998.

The Lost Bird, Berkley (New York, NY), 1999.

The Spirit Woman, Berkley (New York, NY), 2000.

The Thunder Keeper, Berkley (New York, NY), 2001.

The Shadow Dancer, Berkley (New York, NY), 2002.

Killing Raven, Berkley (New York, NY), 2003.

Wife of Moon, Berkley (New York, NY), 2004.

Eye of the Wolf, Berkley (New York, NY), 2005.

The Drowning Man, Berkley Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2006.

The Girl with Braided Hair, Berkley Prime Crime (New York, NY), 2007.

Blood Memory, Berkley (New York, NY), 2008.


Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapahoe, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1981.

The Next 100 Years: A Report, University of Colorado Medical School (Boulder, CO), 1983.

(With Jane Barker and Karen Gilleland) The Tivoli: Bavaria in the Rockies, Colorado & West (Boulder, CO), 1985.

(With Gladys Doty and Karen Gilleland) Under the Golden Dome: Colorado's State Capitol, Colorado & West (Boulder, CO), 1985.

(With father, Sam Speas) Goin' Railroading: A Century on the Colorado High Iron, Pruett (Boulder, CO), 1986, new edition published as Goin' Railroading: Two Generations of Colorado Stories, Pruett (Boulder, CO), 1991.

(Coauthor) A New Westminster, 1987.

(With Karen Gilleland) 450 Best Sales Letters for Every Selling Situation, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1991.

The Pride of Our People: The Colorado State Capitol, Colorado General Assembly (Denver, CO), 1992.

Also author of short stories, including those in "Ten Commandment Series" featuring characters from her novels, and six short stories published in hardback by A.S.A.P. Publishing. Contributor of short stories to numerous anthologies. Contributor of articles to newspapers and magazines, including New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, National Observer, American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Rendezvous, Creativity!, and Old West; contributor of book reviews to Denver Post.


All Coel's novels have been adapted for audio by Books in Motion.


An accomplished writer of both fiction and nonfiction, Margaret Coel is best known for her series of mystery novels set on the Arapaho Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and featuring Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden and Jesuit priest Father John O'Malley. The series, which is frequently compared to works by Tony Hillerman, has been praised for its depiction of Native American life and the landscape of Wyoming, as well as for its flawed but realistic characters, particularly Vicky and Father O'Malley, whose mutual attraction to one another creates tension as they work together to solve crimes. The series has also brought Coel critical accolades. For example, John Rowen, writing in Booklist about the novel The Lost Bird, complimented the author's "rare gift for portraying engaging, realistic characters, devising a difficult puzzle, and pacing everything at a brisk, nail-biting canter."

Coel's portrait of reservation life is the product of her love of research. As she told Web site writer Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum, "even though I've written extensively about the Arapahos, I am still doing research on the history and the culture, and I'm still learning new and wonderful things, which keeps the tribe interesting to me." For research into the character of Father O'Malley, Coel consults priests who have worked on the Wind River Reservation, and she also regularly visits St. Stephen's Mission, which is the inspiration for the mission in her books. As Coel told Gershenbaum, she believes "the best mystery novels are character-driven," and that the romantic tension between Father O'Malley and Vicky Holden is a way of keeping the characters both realistic and interesting. "Both of them have taught me a lot," she told Gershenbaum, "Father John and Vicky have come to understand that it doesn't matter what they might want. We don't get everything we want in life. We make our choices, take our vows, and that's what we get. And that can be good enough."

In Coel's first novel, The Eagle Catcher, the murder of the Wind River Reservation's tribal chief involves O'Malley in an effort to prove that the chief's son is innocent of the crime. O'Malley, a recovering alcoholic assigned to the reservation's St. Francis Mission, must also cope with his strong attraction to Vicky. A critic for Publishers Weekly commended the novel's "likeable, well-drawn characters and a lively pace."

The Ghost Walker begins when Father O'Malley finds a body in a roadside ditch, but the body disappears before the authorities arrive. The Arapaho believe the dead man has become a Ghost Walker, one whose soul must wander the earth searching for a way to the afterworld. The Ghost Walker is an "excellent mystery," Stuart Miller wrote in Booklist, while a writer for Publishers Weekly called the novel a "well-crafted adventure."

In The Dream Stalker, Father O'Malley is entangled in a plan to build a nuclear waste disposal site on the reservation, a development that is favored by the poverty-stricken Arapaho. Vicky receives death threats for opposing the project, and a thirty-year-old murder case figures into a present-day crime. "Coel enchants and intrigues by presenting uniformly well developed, realistic characters … who face difficult moral choices," Rowen wrote in Booklist. Rex E. Klett, writing in the Library Journal, praised the "usual commendable plotting and characterization" in The Dream Stalker, and a Publishers Weekly commentator noted that "the nicely drawn Wyoming backdrop, capable plotting and engaging characters all add up to another coup for Coel."

The Story Teller concerns a stolen ledger book—an Arapaho pictograph record of a nineteenth-century massacre of their people. When the book goes missing from a Denver museum, three students end up murdered and Father O'Malley and Vicky must track down the killer. A writer for Publishers Weekly praised the book for its "knowledge and respect for western history" and called it a "solid mystery with a credible premise in Indian lore."

The Lost Bird begins when an elderly priest driving Father O'Malley's truck is murdered, and O'Malley suspects that the bullet was meant for him. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the dead priest, who was Father O'Malley's predecessor, had returned to the reservation to expose an old scandal. As he searches for the killer, Vicky helps out movie star Sharon David, who has come to the Wind River Reservation in search of her birth parents. A writer for Publishers Weekly praised the book's characters and "sense of place," and wrote that "Coel knows that the gaps between cultures are fertile ground for suspense."

The story of Sacajawea is central to the plot of The Spirit Woman, Coel's sixth mystery, which is kicked off by Father O'Malley's discovery of a decomposed body. When Vicky's friend Laura Simmons arrives on the reservation to search for Sacajawea's fabled autobiography and soon disappears, Vicky realizes the circumstances surrounding the dead body and the her missing friend are somehow connected. The legend of Sacajawea figures as a theme in the book, especially when it dawns on Vicky that she and many of the other women she knows "are all daughters of Sacajawea—battered women struggling to survive their battering men," a critic for Publishers Weekly noted. Reviewing the novel for Booklist, Rowen called the fictional memoirs "a terrific McGuffin in this nicely paced and suspenseful mystery."

In The Thunder Keeper, a young Arapaho is found dead of an apparent suicide near the reservation's sacred petroglyphs. Shortly thereafter, a diamond mining executive is murdered in Denver after attempting to provide Vicky with information about the reservation. When O'Malley acquires surprising details about the deaths from a stranger in his confessional, he and Vicky begin to investigate. In the process, they uncover not only foul play, but also a thread that links the two murders and reveals the truth about a corporate conspiracy. A reviewer for the Denver Post wrote that "Coel has again fashioned a fascinating tale that leads from such wildly divergent settings as the corporate boardroom to the vast and mystic land of the Wind River Reservation. She creates dense and compelling characters in complex stories to entertain her loyal fans."

An obscure, resurrected Native American sect figures prominently in The Shadow Dancer when Father O'Malley fights for the survival of the mission and one of his parishioners suddenly vanishes. Meanwhile, Vicky's ex-husband is murdered, and she becomes the main suspect. Forced to go their separate ways for a while, Vicky and O'Malley eventually cross paths again when their investigations lead them to the charismatic Orlando, who has formed a cult based on the nineteenth-century Shadow Dance religion. A writer for Kirkus Reviews praised Coel's "finely textured world of believable characters," but called the ending "more Nancy Drew than Nick and Nora." Conversely, a Publishers Weekly critic wrote that the novel "captures the rugged and majestic atmosphere of Wyoming" and deemed the ending "poignant."

Killing Raven opens with yet another dead body. This time, the victim appears to be involved with Captain Jack Monroe's rangers, a group currently protesting the development of a new casino on the reservation. Vicky takes a job at the casino at the urging of handsome attorney Adam Lone Eagle, but she soon discovers that the casino management is involved in fraud. Soon afterward, Captain Jack is killed, and Vicky worries that Adam is also involved. Once again, wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "Coel keeps her readers sweating, guessing and turning the pages."

The tenth book in Coel's mystery series, Wife of Moon, focuses on crimes in the past and present. Photographs of the area from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on are display at the St. Francis Mission's museum located on the reservation. One picture in particular is linked to the 1907 violent death of a daughter of a chief. Father O'Malley and Vicky separately investigate the disappearance of the new curator of the museum and the murder of the wife of a tribal coleader, T.J. Painted Horse, who is a descendant of the chief in the photograph. O'Malley and Vicky later join forces to solve the crime. Underlying the main story, as usual, is the tension of their romantic feelings for each other, as well as Adam Lone Eagle's romantic interest in Vicky. In Publisher Weekly, a reviewer commented that "Coel draws readers into early Arapaho life … masterfully blending authentic history with an ingenious plot."

Coel continued to receive critical acclaim for the next mystery in the series, which a Publishers Weekly contributor called a "magnificently crafted volume." Eye of the Wolf also links past events into a recent murder. After a mysterious phone call, O'Malley finds three Shoshone Indians, former enemies of the Arapahos, murdered on the Bates Battlefield, where the tribes clashed over a century ago. At that location, the Arapahos lost to the U.S. Calvary with the help of the Shoshones. Vicky's client, an Arapaho named Frankie Montana, stands accused of the crime because of a recent conflict between him and the men murdered. Vicky is now romantically involved with Lone Eagle, and he tries to get her to drop the case and to focus on more important legal maters. Instead, Vicky, O'Malley, and history professor Charles Lambert work together to solve the case and prove Montana did not commit the crime. A Kirkus Reviews critic asserted that the book "offers a skillful blend of history and mystery, with characters whose motives are seldom what they seem."

The Drowning Man is the next volume in Coel's series. The Drowning Man is a sacred petroglyph that has been stolen from the Arapaho tribe. When Father John O'Malley sets out to attempt to retrieve the item—one of many hunting for it—he comes across a strange Indian who tells him that he will return the artifact in exchange for a quarter of a million dollars. Meanwhile, Vicky sets out to overturn the conviction of Travis Birdsong, who was accused of killing his friend in an argument relating to a similar glyph. Vicky is sure that Travis is innocent, as is his grandfather, and even an attempt on her life fails to persuade Vicky to set the case aside, though the Tribal Council and her own lover both think she is wasting her time. The more Vicky investigates, the clearer it becomes that the theft of the Drowning Man is in some way connected to the original glyph and the murder for which Travis has taken the fall. A contributor for Kirkus Reviews commented that "Coel … blends her usual thoughtful depiction of life on the reservation with a solid mystery."

Coel's next novel is The Girl with Braided Hair, in which Vicky and Father O'Malley set out to determine the identity of a woman whose bones are discovered on the reservation. All they have to go on at first is test results that indicate that the woman was beaten and shot, and that her death took place in 1973, a turbulent time when fights for Indian rights frequently involved the FBI. Booklist reviewer John Rowen praised Coel's effort for her "full-bodied characters, vivid landscapes, and snappy dialogue."

In her nonfiction books, Coel introduces readers to the people who took part in some of history's greatest events. For example, Chief Left Hand: Southern Arapahoe strives "to convey to the reader a sense that the inhabitants of the plains before the white man arrived were people with hopes and plans, talents and abilities, just like any other group of people," as she once told CA.

Coel's interest in "people at work under special circumstances … at a special time" led her to write Goin' Railroading: Two Generations of Colorado Stories, she once told CA. An account of the extension of the railroad system across America's West, the study features the authentic voice of Sam Speas, Coel's father, who spent decades tending the boilers of old steam engines. Through Coel, Speas recalls both the personal and historical aspects of the railroad. Calling Speas "a better storyteller than historian," a Publishers Weekly critic observed that the tales nevertheless "come alive" when Speas focuses on his personal experiences as a railroad worker. Speas's fascinating anecdotes, the critic added, allow "the romance of the rails [to] slowly charm the reader."



Booklist, October 1, 1996, Stuart Miller, review of The Ghost Walker, p. 325; August, 1997, John Rowen, review of The Dream Stalker, p. 1882; August, 1999, John Rowen, review of The Lost Bird, p. 2033; September 1, 2000, John Rowen, review of The Spirit Woman, p. 68; September 1, 2004, Connie Fletcher, review of Wife of Moon, p. 68; August 1, 2007, John Rowen, review of The Girl with Braided Hair, p. 45.

Boulder Daily Camera, September 1, 2002, "Prime Cult Sleuths Face Accusations as Apocalypse Looms in Coel's Best Yet," review of The Shadow Dancer, p. DD6.

Denver Post, September 30, 2001, review of The Thunder Keeper.

Gazette (Colorado Springs, CO), September 15, 2002, "A Coel Mine; Boulder Author Weaves Tapestries of Indian Culture, Modern Mystery," interview with Coel, p. T&B7.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2002, review of The Shadow Dancer, p. 1077; August 1, 2003, review of Killing Raven, p. 994; July 1, 2005, review of Eye of the Wolf, p. 710; July 15, 2006, review of The Drowning Man, p. 703.

Library Journal, September 1, 1997, Rex E. Klett, review of The Dream Stalker, p. 222; April 15, 1999, Kristen L. Smith, review of The Ghost Walker, p. 163; October 1, 1999, Susan A. Zappia, review of The Lost Bird, p. 139; September 1, 2000, Susan A. Zappia, review of The Spirit Woman, p. 256; November 1, 2002, Kristen L. Smith, review of The Spirit Woman, p. 144; September 1, 2004, Rex E. Klett, review of Wife of Moon, p. 122.

Publishers Weekly, November 29, 1991, review of Goin' Railroading: Two Generations of Colorado Stories, p. 46; April 3, 1995, review of The Eagle Catcher, p. 49; August 19, 1996, review of The Ghost Walker, p. 54; July 14, 1997, review of The Dream Stalker, p. 67; August 3, 1998, review of The Story Teller, p. 77; October 4, 1999, review of The Lost Bird, p. 68; August 28, 2000, review of The Spirit Woman, p. 59; August 12, 2001, review of The Thunder Keeper, p. 289; August 19, 2002, review of The Shadow Dancer, p. 70; August 18, 2003, review of Killing Raven, p. 61; August 9, 2004, review of Wife of Moon, p. 234; August 1, 2005, review of Eye of the Wolf, p. 47.

Roundup, February, 2005, review of Wife of Moon, p. 26.

School Library Journal, May, 1999, Penny Stevens, review of The Story Teller, p. 158; March, 2005, review of Wife of Moon, p. 243.

ONLINE, (September 5, 2003), Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum, interview with Margaret Coel.

Margaret Coel Home Page, (August 22, 2005).

Mystery Reader, (March 26, 2003), Thea Davis, review of The Dream Stalker; Martha Moore, review of The Lost Bird.

Romantic Times Online, (March 26, 2003), Toby Bromberg, reviews of The Lost Bird, The Spirit Woman, The Thunder Keeper, and The Shadow Dancer.

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Coel, Margaret 1937–

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