Hunting Badger, by Tony Hillerman

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I have posted a bibliography with brief reviews of all the Tony Hillerman "Navajo mysteries," and full reviews of later entries in the series, The Wailing Wind and The Sinister Pig. You might also be interested in a comprehensive essay on what I call "American Indian Mysteries."

Here's a quick link to Hillerman offerings at Amazon.

Tony Hillerman's novels have always been "meat and potatoes" things with no aspirations to psychological density or literary brilliance. And there's nothing wrong with meat and potatoes. Here, in the latest Chee/Leaphorn mystery, he covers no new ground and doesn't advance us very far in the personal stories of his detectives, though. Hunting Badger will be fun for the Hillerman fan, but it is a bit too chatty and reflective for first readers. Better they should try the wonderful Skinwalkers to see what all the fuss is about, or A Thief of Time, a novel which compares favorably to almost anything written in the Southwest to date.

What the fans of a mystery series look for, in addition to sustained quality and consistency, is developing characters, the sense that time is moving forward. They expect both growth and revelation. James Lee Burke and Carol O'Connell are masters of this element of the genre. Burke's Robicheaux novels are the fictional autobiography of a complex, fascinating man and his family, his friends, the people he comes in contact with. They are people we would like to know. O'Connell's talent lies in the control of revelation. Reading the Mallory novels in sequence is like peeling an onion, as we probe deeper into Kathy Mallory's beautiful, damaged mind. Even the anticlimactic Shell Game provides a new layer. Jim Chee's evolving inner life is not as compelling as Dave Robicheaux's or Kathy Mallory's. It moves forward, in this latest novel, perhaps a bit too slowly, but to what looks, so far, like a satisfactory goal.

I began my review of The First Eagle by exclaiming "Enough already with Janet Pete!" Finally, Jim Chee's "on again/off again" romance with the ambitious Navajo lawyer is history. She is gone (but not forgotten), and Bernie Manuelito is developing into a good, strong character. Chee has gone from a white girlfriend who felt he was wasted on the reservation and wanted him to become an FBI agent [!] to an assimilated Navaho girlfriend who was incapable of comprehending her own lost culture to, finally, this feisty little Navaho cop, untidy and fiercely protective of her dignity, as deeply committed to her home place as Jim is learning to be. Seeing what comes of that will be worth the price of the next novel.

Do not miss the PBS Mystery Theater dramatization of Skinwalkers, coming in the Fall season of 2002. Starring Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) and Wes Studi(make your own list), and directed by Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals, again), it should redeem the good intentions of Robert Redford, badly sullied by some unfortunate decisions when he produced The Dark Wind a few years ago with Fred Ward (Fred Ward?) as Joe Leaphorn.

While Jim's conflict over the traditional and modern worlds he is torn between has begun to resolve, Joe Leaphorn is maturing into an elder statesman of comic dignity and undiminished intellect. The evolution of his grief and mourning for the loss of his wife has been a high point of the series, and although his white anthropologist friend is still a bit vague and undefined, Joe's feelings about her are coming into focus.

If I hear the phrase "Legendary Lieutenant" again, I'm gonna scream.

He operates on the periphery of the action, since he is retired, but his role is pivotal to the conclusion.

Hunting Badger has some weaknesses. The dialog is stilted and expository in places, reminding us unnecessarily of details from previous novels, referring to the great manhunt of 1998 (don't ask) so often that you finally, as with Janet Pete, want to shout "Enough!" And if I hear the phrase "Legendary Lieutenant" again, I will scream. The plot never quite takes off; there are too many bad guys, each doing their own thing, and a key culprit is still free at the end of the novel. He is dangerous enough, and interesting enough, that there is at least a suggestion that he will emerge as the central figure of the next book.

Hillerman takes all his chances with the cultural material. When Jim is talking to his beloved uncle Nakai, the Singer who had been training him before he got involved with Janet Pete, it appears that the old man is about to tell Jim the last secret of the Beautyway "in front of us." It is the most suspenseful moment of the novel. Hillerman has been so meticulous about cultural, especially sacred boundaries, that we are horrified. And it resolves beautifully. Hillerman takes no chances with his characters, though, who live in a dangerous but essentially sane world. He could kill Leaphorn in the next novel, the way O'Connell killed Mallory's adoptive father to launch the Mallory books (and then spent five books making us wish we'd known him). Burke has done the same thing, even more shockingly, to let us know that nothing is certain in his world except identity and character. Hillerman won't do this, any more than Andrew Vachss will. With Vachss, I think the limitation is sentiment, that soft spot so common in the hardest people. But for Hillerman, the problem is different. He won't kill any of his central characters, I suspect, because it would violate the world he has created. This is not that sort of universe, where anything can happen; the Chee/Leaphorn books have their own harmony, their own Beauty Way.

These are novels to sit down with like we sit on the porch with a favorite aunt or uncle, unsure where our imaginations will go, sure of a comfortable thrill and a bit of education in the world, the Navaho world, and the limitations of our own cultural blinders. Hillerman serves up the best roadhouse fare with a New Mexican theme: no cumin, no coriander, no black beans or exotic cheeses, just a simple feast for the mind.

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Some links for more information on Hillerman:
The best biographical source is his memoir, of course. My bibliography of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries includes a chronology and brief reviews of each book. Another solid place to look is "The unofficial Tony Hillerman Homepage" maintained by Susan Mueller at UM/St. Louis. Mueller's site will provide lots of paper and electronic resources. You might also be interested in a PBS online interview; it's a few years old. A specialized location is the Tony Hillerman "glossary," which provides easy access to explanations of Navajo terms in the novels. I can't vouch for its accuracy, however.

I'll be reviewing The Wailing Wind in June. If you are looking for other writers to read while you wait for the next "Navajo Police mystery," read my essay on "American Indian Mysteries" for a slew of suggestions, including your two best bets, Thomas Perry and Kirk Mitchell.

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