If Tony Hillerman didn't invent the American Indian detective novel, he certainly deserves credit for turning it into a mainstream idea. Thomas Perry, Kirk Mitchell, Margaret Coel, James Doss, Sandra Prowell, Dana Stablenow, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Louis Owens, and Linda Hogan have all been direct beneficiaries, gaining an audience for their own worthy endeavors. Less directly, Rudolfo Anaya, Mardi Oakley Medawar, Michael McGarrity, Judith Van Gieson, J. A. Jance, Steve Hamilton, Nevada Barr and countless other mystery writers mining similar hills owe Hillerman a nod of thank you. And he provides a target to aspire to, because none of them has surpassed the best of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries.
The cases of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee have given thousands of readers an insight into the cultural milieu of the Indian peoples of the Southwest, particularly the Navajo. Hillerman has always been extremely careful, making no claims for insider knowledge (he is a white man who grew up with Indians in Oklahoma) and maintaining respect and courtesy toward the privacy of the tribes his books focus on.
All the more ironic, that the attempt to film The Dark Wind left such a bad taste for everyone that Robert Redford and Hillerman waited more than ten years before trying again.
Redford decided to try again, with a film version of Skinwalkers for PBS. Starring Adam Beach (Jim Chee) and Wes Studi (Joe Leaphorn), and directed by Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals), it aired on PBS Mystery!, Fall 2002, and the series now includes Coyote Waits and A Thief of Time. Read a news story at Current.org or check the announcement at PBS.
Hillerman's Indians are wonderfully humanized and individualized, and his knowledge of current Indian issues is always impressive. His two Navajo cops are scarcely interchangeable; they and their colleagues (Captain Largo, Cowboy Dashee, Bernadette Manuelito) are rounded identifiable individuals. In an ironic but authentic touch, it is the younger Chee who is traditional in his beliefs, Leaphorn who views Navajo religion as a sympathetic outsider. With both men, we have an interest in the personal lives that integrates nicely with the mystery plot and moves consistently from one novel to the next.
Hillerman's plots have matured into the "comfy chair" of mysteries. You never know what Nevada Barr is going to pull on you. James Lee Burke has already killed off Dave Robicheaux's first wife, so we are never complacent about Bootsie and Alafair. Hillerman doesn't deal in that kind of shock/realism. And he writes unobtrusively for the whole family. When Hillerman's characters use obscenities, it is in deft paraphrase, and they leave their sex lives off stage, a nicety that should not be lost on his readers, nor sneered at. Each novel offers a "teaching situation," helping the reader understand not only something about the culture and life of Southwestern Indians, but about the political and social issues of the region. Steak and potatoes. Why not?
Here's a quick link to Hillerman offerings at Amazon.
The first Joe Leaphorn novel, published in 1970, though Leaphorn is "co-billed" with a white protagonist. An anonymous agent is now famous for having advised Hillerman to "lose the Indian stuff" and he'd have a best seller on his hands. Even with "the Indian stuff" the novel got an Edgar nomination for best first novel. All the elements of the Hillerman world are there. The murder has a ritualistic look about it, and Leaphorn's rationalism is put to test as he stalks what may be a Navajo shapechanger, a witch who prowls the reservation in the appearance of a wolf. Running parallel with the traditional plot is a second, involving lost test rockets and murder with the obvious motive (money).
Hillerman himself has suggested ruefully that this "is not the place to start" reading the series. I think he is being a bit hard on the book, myself. The opening section establishes Hillerman's clever strategy for writing Navajo characters without presuming insider status. As Luis Horseman sings his hunting song, he laments that he didn't "listen better" when his grandfather taught it to him. He is, as Leaphorn says, someone who "never learned how to be a Navajo" and so, it turns out, is one of the villains. Leaphorn's insider/outsider status is superbly captured in a scene at an Enemy Way, in which he has a conversation with a Singer who decides, at last, that Blue Policeman (as he calls Joe) is a bit too white.
With the second Leaphorn novel, Hillerman uses the Zuni as his Indian milieu. Leaphorn is called in because the disappearance of a Zuni boy is followed by the disappearance of the boy's best friend, a Navajo. Once again, a plot with supernatural overtones resolves into the mundane realities of greed and murder. Dance Hall of the Dead won the Edgar for Best Mystery Novel, bettering the bridesmaid status of The Blessing Way. It represents a huge step forward in quality. The only weak spot is the oddity of the murderer sneaking around in a huge Salamobia Kachina mask. (Where does he hide it when he isn't wearing it?) Otherwise, the plot is at once baffling and, in its surprise conclusion, satisfying. Hillerman handles the sacred elements and the tribal differences of his Zuni and Navajo characters with delicacy and good sense.
One of the great strengths of the novel is the careful interweaving of white cultural commentary by the assimilated Navajo, Navajo values, and the outsider perspective on the Zuni people. Hillerman's description of the dancing Shalako, seen through the sympathetic but non-believer eyes of Joe Leaphorn, has an immediacy that suggests the author's own experience.
One of the best books in the series. The story begins in the classic Hillerman mode, with two brutal murders 'witnessed' by an old, blind Navajo woman who has her own, supernatural explanation for what happened. In each of the early novels, the first crime is an apparently supernatural event which is eventually resolved to natural causes. This Hillerman formula always manages to make the supernatural solution seem plausible, resolve its clues to a more mundane crime, and not, in the process, call into question the legitimacy of the supernatural. A true tightrope.
The plot of Listening Womanweaves together three seemingly unrelated crimes, one of which involves a heroin deal. This too is a hallmark of the early novels.
Hillerman introduces Jim Chee, a younger policeman than Leaphorn, with a different beat and his own take on his role in law enforcement. Where Leaphorn is careful, rational, and meticulous, Chee is a young man drawn to a traditional calling (a 'Singer', a kind of religious doctor), more physical in his problem solving, and less certain where he wants to be tomorrow. Where Leaphorn respects Navajo beliefs about the supernatural, Chee shares them with his elders and mentors.
Witchcraft and cancer and oil leases feed the mix here, and Chee's relationship with white schoolteacher Mary Landon challenges his commitment to the rez and his aspirations as a Singer. The novel also contains the most memorable Anglo character in any of the books, a spooky professional killer. Hillerman tried for a similar effect in The Ghostway, but it doesn't work quite as well.
The ill-fated movie starring Lou Diamond Phillips didn't do the novel justice; no surprise, considering what the filmmakers were up against with the hailstorm of political infighting the set off by casting non-Navajos as Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn (a decision that's a candidate for the "What Were They Thinking?" award). To make matters worse, a significant plot thread in the novel is the conflict between Hopi and Navajo over the Joint Use lands. These are parts of the country that were, in effect, "owned" by both the Hopis and the Navajos. The U.S. government, in its usual obtuseness, "solved" the problem by dividing the land up and then relocating anyone who ended up on land that no longer belonged to their tribe. Traditional Navajos were forced off land that their clans had used for centuries. (Sandra Osawa's film In the Heart of Big Mountain is about the effects of this decision.)
The filmmakers wandered into the aftershocks of the Joint Lands decision, intending to make a movie centered on the controversy, and they were blindsided by the resistance, anger, and animosity they encountered. Blindsided? Pretty amazing.
The classic Hillerman plot: A plane crash, possibly tied to a drug deal, a corpse whose palms and feet have been scalped (destruction of evidence or Navajo corpse medicine?), and a traditional Hopi wanted for sabotaging a windmill, all wound together in a surprising and consistent conclusion. Hillerman concentrates this book on the distinctions between Hopi and Navajo, and he uses Chee's status as a traditional Navajo to advantage in a number of scenes.
Chee has to deal with death taboos that he believes in while investigating a series of murders and the disappearance of a young Navajo girl. Chee's traditional values are illustrated graphically when he must enter a burial hogan to search for clues. This taboo is so strong even Leaphorn is troubled by violating it. Hillerman uses the event as a way of bringing the conflict between Chee and Mary Landon to a head.
The investigation eventually leads Chee to an urban Indian community in Los Angeles, thus extending Hillerman's depiction of contemporary Indian life. He also manages, while using a senile old man to advance the plot, to dramatize some significant differences in cultural sensibility between whites and Navajos. The crime is a bit convoluted, and the big jeopardy in the final pages rather confusing. But Chee is saved from the master villain in a way that is at once ironic, fitting, and poignant.
The film of The Dark Wind included Leaphorn as a character, but I don't recall that he is in the novel. Skinwalkers, however, features the two cops collaborating reluctantly (neither is sure he likes the other very much, personally or professionally). The tension between the rationalist Leaphorn ("I believe in people who believe in witches") and the traditional Chee, who is nearly killed at the beginning of the novel by a very real shotgun blast, makes this one of the best in the series.
As with previous novels, a good deal of the focus is on the personal lives of the protagonists. Here, Chee's relationship with Mary Landon is resolving rather unhappily, and we are given a hint at a coming tragedy in Leaphorn's life, his wife Emma's sudden death of cancer, which occurs between this novel and the next.
Hillerman was at the top of his form at this point. If I could only have one of the books, it would be this one. An archaeologist disappears. Dead or absconded? A backhoe disappears. What's going on? Indian traditionalists feuding with anthros? Pot poachers? The topical plot is about the illegal trade in prehistoric relics. Tent revival religion, Navajo-style, plays a part in the resolution, and Leaphorn and Chee are finally beginning to work together effectively (and still not buddies. Leaphorn observes of Chee that he doesn't like him, but he respects him).
This is one the most tightly plotted novels, with a ending that comes together quickly and emphatically. When we learn, more than fifty pages from the end, who the killer is, the suspense mounts steadily from there on, because Leaphorn is not in a position to learn what Chee has discovered. A brilliant subplot almost begs to become a 'prequel' novel, about Leaphorn's younger days on the force.
However, the most powerful thing in the novel is Leaphorn's grief over the loss of his wife. Emma has died suddenly and meaninglessly of complications after brain surgery to remove a tumor, and Hillerman devotes many paragraphs to Leaphorn's 'ghost sickness.' Faced with a loss of his own, Leaphorn is sensitized to some of the Navajo attitudes toward the dead which he regarded as superstitious before. He doesn't abandon his house, but Emma's haunting presence as a memory anchored to the most trivial things makes the idea tempting. He moves the bed so change what he sees when he wakes up, he sleeps on her side so he won't unconsciously reach out to her in the night. None of the books more effectively explores the wisdom that can be expressed in what appears to be superstition.
Mr. Leaphorn Goes to Washington in one of the less effective novels in the series. Having teamed Chee and Leaphorn together successfully in two excellent predecessors, Hillerman follows that formula again. The opening scene is a stunner. A Washington bureaucrat who opposes returning the bones of Indian ancestors from the Smithsonian opens a FedEx package to find inside the bones of her grandparents, illegally exhumed from the family plot. Good. Study these.
But the Washington milieu simply dampens the novel in a way that no intricacy of plotting can undo. Leaphorn and Chee both come to the capital chasing different leads on different crimes, and they are caught up eventually in a plot more appropriate to a Robert Ludlum novel than a "Navajo mystery." Chee's run to LA in The Ghostway integrated nicely into the overall pattern that makes the novels work (that is, strong plot with contemporary foundation, colored by a traditional aspect of Navajo culture, providing opportunities to describe Indian life and the landscape of the Southwest). Here, the fact that Leaphorn and Chee in Washington are fish out of water is neither surprising nor interesting. It goes nowhere we couldn't predict without much effort. Separate from the crime plot, it does allow Hillerman to dramatize the significant differences which doom Chee's relationship with the assimilated Janet Pete.
Another favorite of mine. Hillerman manages to emphasize the malign side of the Coyote figure without losing those readers aware of the many facets of the Indian trickster. The trickster element of Coyote's character is emphasized in the Anglo view, but for the Navajos, who value 'balance,' 'harmony,' and 'concord' above all else, Coyote's chaotic influence is considered fraught with at least great potential evil.
The topical element is the death of a Navajo policeman, the personal, Chee's relationship with Navajo lawyer Janet Pete. When Patrolman Nez is shot and left to die in his burning car, Chee feels responsible because he failed to provide backup on Nez's patrol. He arrives in time to seriously injure his hands attempting to rescue Nez and, a few minutes later, to apprehend the likely perpetrator, an old Navajo wandering drunk on the highway with the murder weapon stuck in his belt.
When elements of the crime start to add up wrong, Chee pursues the investigation to a conclusion both surprising and tragic. You won't like how this one ends, but you have to respect Hillerman's integrity and intentions.
A Koshare, a 'sacred clown' is murdered during a religious ceremony, and the result is a complex plot that requires tracking down artifact counterfeiters. In some ways, the best thing in the novel is Leaphorn's new relationship with a woman who may fill some of the gap left in his life by the death of his beloved Emma. Professor Louise Bourbonette, introduced in the previous novel, plays a more positive role in her second appearance.
Meantime, Jim Chee's on-and-off relationship with Janet Pete heats up and then, inevitably, boils over into some ugliness. As with all the books, three or four unrelated crimes resolve into a single climax, and we are faced with a criminal we would have preferred not to have been.
The skeleton of a dead man in a place where it couldn't be, halfway up an unclimbable cliff, is the mystery to resolve in this one. Though the emphasis is on the personal lives of the two cops, the mystery stays in the foreground.
Enough already with Janet Pete! The 'trick' Chee pulls on her confirms what we all knew two novels back. Somebody grab that boy by the neck and hand him to Bernie Manuelito before she wakes up and falls for Cowboy Dashee. Otherwise, a more satisfying novel than either of the last two. Hillerman back in best form, though some of his devices are a bit shiny with wear. A murderer we want to like commits a crime we abhor. Talk about moral dilemmas.
Reading this addition to a distinguished series, it is clear that Hillerman is looking with some longing toward retirement. In some ways, it is the weakest book in the bunch. It is poorly edited (one scene, a conversation between Chee and Leaphorn, is actually repeated), suggesting a lack of commitment on his publisher's part (HarperCollins) as well. There is too much exposition, too much wooden dialog, and too much self-reference to previous books. And too many villains. Hillerman is clearly more interested in his policemen's personal lives than the crime, and so are we. But it is, after all, a mystery novel, so politeness requires some sort of mystery. No word of another novel in the series. I hope there will be one. Ending here would be a whimper, not a bang. [Full review]
With The Wailing Wind, Hillerman finds his gait again. It isn't among the very best in the series, but it is a fun read, guaranteed enjoyable by fan and novice alike. A tangle of ghost stories, legendary lost mines, Navajo sacred ground, deceptions, infidelities, and solved crimes that a new murder re-opens, it moves swiftly and amusingly to a tidy, if a bit puzzling, conclusion. And Bernie Manuelito comes into her own. It is almost her novel, in fact; enough so that you will no doubt regard the conclusion with bittersweet feelings. Hunting Badger would have been a disappointment and anti-climax, had Hillerman retired after writing it. While there is here none of the valedictory tone that Mardi Oakley Medawar employed to signal the end of her excellent Tai-Bodal series, this novel is a good place to come to, if we are approaching the end of this wonderful and distinguished series. We have met and learned to love and respect a great cast of characters, and we have once again been invited, if only secondhand, into the modulated harmony that is the Navajo world. This is a world Nicholas Black Elk would understand, a place which, if it did not exist, should have. [Full review]
The latest in the series feels like a farewell volume. Hillerman has been at it now for more than twenty years, and a good deal of what there was to like in these novels has gone threadbare. There are signs that this is a valedictory novel. Joe (still referred to relentlessly as "the Legendary Lieutenant") and Jim both resolve their personal stories, and no new characters emerge to hold our interest in future books. This is a close contender, with Hunting Badger, for the dubious distinction of being the weakest novel in the series. With its doubly incredible plot (are the bad guys rerouting a pipeline to steal gas from the mines or creating a vacuum tube to suck cocaine across the border?), its implausible villain, and its even more implausible ending, there is little to recommend the plot. Huge portions of the book are given over to reminiscences, self-references, reprises, and in-jokes only comprehensible to series fans. When the villain travels to New Mexico to commit a murder himself, accompanied by his personal hit man whom he could have simply assigned the task, it's obvious that he only makes the trip to save Hillerman the inconvenience of having to bring him to justice on the East Coast. The patch is farmed out; but, oh, the crop was great while it lasted. [Full review]
I was convinced that The Sinister Pig was to be the last Chee/Leaphorn novel. Unfortunately, I was wrong. With the inevitability of a punchy boxer, Hillerman continues to drag the series deeper and deeper into mediocrity. Skeleton Man is so bad, I found myself wondering if perhaps James Doss wrote it for him. I wish Hillerman would "sell the franchise," because it's got a lot more potential, as the PBS Mysteries are demonstrating. That too, is problematic, though, because the inheritor should be a Navajo writer with the skills to combine solid cultural awareness with a good mystery. No candidates come to mind, but I can't help but think that a real search, in the form of a contest, for example, could turn one up.
But enough fantasy. What's wrong with Skeleton Man? The common complaint is that Leaphorn is "peripheral to the story," and the white characters are too prominent. This is pretty silly. If you do the math, Joe is approaching 80. He is indeed out of the action, except for one crucial bit of investigating, but Jim Chee, Bernie Manuelito, and Cowboy Dashee are at the center of things. The white characters' prominence is noticeable, as it was in The Sinister Pig, because the white characters are hopelessly superficial caricatures. It is a telling and ominous reality that when Hillerman writes about "the rest of the world," he doesn't do it very well.
So we have another B-movie rich bad guy, and a henchman who shows his depravity by staring at a girl in a bikini. And we have Joanna Craig, whom we are apparently supposed to like in an edgy sort of way, even though she shoots a guy (well yeah, one of the bad guys) with no justification and exclaims, when the baddest bad guy of all waves the fleshless forearm of her father at her, "Give me my father's bone!" (It's a long story. And no, I don't think Hillerman was aware of the risqué double entendre.)
And we have things that happen because they need to, not because they follow from the action. The bad guy finds a note on a rock from someone named "Bernie." A few minutes later, he sees what might be Bernadette Manuelito, whom he doesn't know, at some distance. (I say "might be" because the person he sees is wearing a "blue skirt" and a few minutes later, when he captures Bernie, she's in jeans.) He immediately assumes that the "unknown woman" wrote the note. Why? Why would he think "Bernie" is a woman? Well, because she is, you know? And yet, fifteen minutes later, tracking her, he repeatedly says to Joanna Craig, "It's either a woman or a small man." A small man in a skirt? In New Orleans, maybe, but in the canyons north of Ganado? Whatever.
You will grow weary, by the fourth or fifth time, of being told that Masaw "helped the Hopi understand death." You will sigh with exasperation the fifth or sixth time the mysterious Havasupai shaman who gave a diamond to someone is referred to as "the diamond dispenser." The familiar elements of the Hillerman recipe are all here, but the result is about as interesting as an intact dead squirrel. Skip it. If you have a friend you want to give a "new Hillerman novel" to, treat them to a Thomas Perry instead, or Kirk Mitchell's Spirit Sickness, or tape/DVDs of the Mystery Theater films of the classic "big three:" Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, and A Thief of Time.
I've learned that creating a page like this entails what can become an onerous obligation. People come here to see what I have to say about "the new novel," and they have a right to expect to find something. Watching the Chee/Leaphorn series disintegrate has been bad enough; having to continue to chronicle that disintegration makes me very sad. The Shape Shifter is a stinker so bad only family (and Harriet Klausner, of course) could love it. I won't catalog its problems; that's too depressing. Here are a few low points and a bit of philosophizing.
The book feels like an old manuscript tarted up to surf on what's left of the series' reputation. How else to explain the maddening inconsistencies? Jim and Bernie are married and back from their honeymoon (Skeleton Man time), but Joe has "just retired a few months ago" ("'waay back in the series" time). To further confuse things, the novel begins on Day X, then Joe starts reminiscing about not one, but two previous time frames – a few weeks ago and more than forty years ago.
And the main crime occurred before the distant crime (even more more than forty years), so there's another time frame to keep track of, for a total of three besides the present. To make matters worse, the narrative begins as Joe's reminiscences, a story he is telling Bernie and Jim. But no, it turns out, he isn't telling it, he's remembering it. In the return to the present, he has told a story to them ("So, that's what happened"), but what he told them is not the version he told us. Whatever he told them, we never know, even though we began the narrative listening to him tell them. We are assured, in the final pages, that he did not tell them what we just spent a few hours "listening" to.
The book is full of logical holes beyond parody. Here are a few. The millionaire criminal is supposed to have stolen his millions from the CIA during the Viet Nam war. Then a few months later he decides to hold up a Navajo trading post and creates an elaborate scheme for this purpose. The problem? All this work should net him about $2-5K, if that. Everybody keeps talking about the vast amount of money he scored in that crime, but vaguely. At last, Hillerman seems to get exasperated with his own doubts and has a character point out that the trading post took in about $100/day and the owner only went to the bank every few months. OooooKay. So $100 times 62 (I'm being generous) is, uh, $6200. That's more than the average Navajo makes in a year, but it's about a month's interest on a million dollars.
The low point of the plot is when Leaphorn is talking about the brilliance of the now-terminated criminal. "He never left witnesses!" Joe gushes, as if this were some sort of criminal rocket science. ("I know! We'll... leave no witnesses!!") Unfortunately, Joe says this to the surviving witness and accomplice — and not, I assure you, in jest. In fact, the brilliant international bad guy killed the trader and his wife in front of three accomplices whom he then betrayed to the police. That would be three witnesses suddenly in a position to kind of blow his identity, and with major incentive to do it. So, why didn't they? All white guys look alike? And the killer worked at the trading post for weeks while casing it, thus risking being seen by anyone who came in. Now, understand, a Navajo trading post doesn't have the traffic of a King Sooper's, but anybody going into the place wouldn't have much else to do besides look at the new guy. That's a lot of "non-witnesses." Two of the accomplices are dead, and the third, out on parole, is being stalked by the brilliant international criminal because – you guessed it! – he's a "witness." In fact, Joe came looking for this guy becasue he's a witness. I could almost wish I were making this up. And it gets much, much worse as the plot flails into a halt.
At times I feel sorry for Hillerman, cranking out these books long after the creative juices have dried up. But then my cynicism kicks in. He doesn't have to do this, and not this way. He's a bestselling author with nearly thirty years of residuals and movie options. A couple of dozen paperbacks permanently in print are a nice coshion against inflation. He could tell the sleaze merchants at HarperCollins to get him a decent editor – someone at least competent enough to fix spelling and grammar. Better yet, he could hire his own editor, as so many writers of solid reputation and diminishing energy have done (Larry Niven comes to mind). Someone to remove the lazy clichés, fix the chronologies and inconsistencies, massage the lame elements of the plot. I'm not volunteering, mind; that editor should be a young Navajo literary major, a student eager for an apprenticeship from an aging master. I guarantee she's out there.
I'll keep buying the books. But I won't lie about them. Sorry.
Note: Peripheral to Hillerman's fiction is his personal memoir, Seldom Disappointed, which records his childhood memories of Oklahoma and his service in WWII, then takes us forward to account for his career as a mystery writer. It is interesting biographically, but poorly written and inexcusably poorly edited.