Mystery author #42: Tony Hillerman

For this author I chose to review one book about each of the two detectives of the series and one about both of them, plus the Edgar award-winning Dance Hall of the Dead, which is the second book in the series.

Series detective(s): Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee

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Title: The Blessing Way
Detective(s): Navajo tribal police officer Joe Leaphorn
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1970
Type of mystery: Murder, thriller
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: The Navajo Indian reservation, Four Corners area, USA; 1960s

Story:
Lieutenant Leaphorn investigates the death of a young man who had been on the run from the police after wounding a man in a fight. Leaphorn suspected strongly that he was hiding in a particular area, but the body was found far away from there, and so he deems the death suspicious. Meanwhile, an anthropologist who had been planning to gather stories in the area where Leaphorn believed the dead man had been hiding, discovers his partner gone and gets into serious trouble when he is cornered in a canyon. Naturally, this being a mystery thriller, the two story lines converge…

Review:
I started to read this book in bed one night. I generally give myself about half an hour to read before turning in, but once I started I was quickly pulled into the story and didn’t put it down until I finished it around 1 a.m. Fortunately it was on a weekend, so I could sleep in the next morning, but the book would have been worth the bleary eyes and being half-asleep at work.

Not only is this an excellent thriller and police procedural/mystery, it is also well written. The characters come alive and the descriptions of the landscape are very evocative. While I have not visited this exact area of the USA, I came pretty close and certainly saw enough of the similar landscapes in southern Utah for the landscapes being described to come vividly alive in my mind while I read. But it was not just because I knew what the landscape was like. It takes a really good writer to draw up such a good image of a place that you feel as if you have been there, as if you are there.

Rating: An excellent mystery-thriller, a genuine page-turner. 4+ stars.

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Title: Dance Hall of the Dead
Detective: Navajo tribal police officer Joe Leaphorn
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1970
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: The Navajo Indian reservation, Four Corners area, USA; 1960s

Story:
When a Zuni boy disappears, later to be found murdered, and his Navajo friend disappears, the Zuni police contact Joe Leaphorn in the hope that he can track the boy down and find out what happened. The dead boy had been chosen to represent one of the Zuni gods in a religious procession, and Joe discovers that he may have told his friend some secrets that should not have been told to an outsider, and also that a figure dressed as a Kachina, a representation of a Zuni god, also seems to be looking for the boy, with evil intent. The search for the boy turns into a race between Joe and the Kachina-man.

Review:
This is a more pure-bred mystery than the previous book in the series, which was as much a thriller (of a specific kind which I will not mention in case it spoils the story for future readers) as it was a mystery. I enjoyed the snippets of Native American history and lore that are included in the narrative, and again the landscapes came alive in my mind’s eye.

Hillerman knows how to keep a reader interested all the way through, building up the tension without ever allowing the narrative to droop. This time it is not just the search for justice and the race against an unknown enemy that keeps the story going, but also an atmosphere of tension between the law enforcement agencies working in the area, sometimes seemingly at cross-purposes.

Rating: Another excellent page-turner. 4+ stars.

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Title: People of Darkness
Detective: Navajo tribal police officer Jim Chee
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1980
Type of mystery: Murder, thriller
Setting & time: The Navajo Indian reservation, Four Corners, USA, and neighbouring areas; 1970s

Story:
Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is called to the home of a very rich uranium mine owner and asked, by the man’s wife, to spend part of his leave to recover a box of keepsakes that was stolen from her husband. Shortly afterwards, the husband contacts him to call off the search, but by that time Jim’s curiosity has been aroused. He finds the thief, who tells him where the box is hidden, but when he gets there, a hitman has just murdered the man and stolen the box. Having got a good look at the hired killer, Jim and his companion, a woman school teacher, are now next on the hit list, as witnesses to be eliminated, but now Jim is more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the case before any more people get killed.

Review: There really isn’t much of a mystery in this story, as the killer’s identity is known all the time and the identity of his client is easily guessed, but it takes a while longer to figure out the why?, so genre-wise this would be a whydunnit crossed with a thriller. Getting to see a different part of the reservation than in the previous books I read was fun, and so was meeting a new lead character. The writing is excellent as before, and one gets interesting glimpses into the spiritual life of the Navajo, as Jim is training to be a yataalii, a traditional medicine man.

Rating: A good thriller, but short on mystery. 3+ stars.

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Title: Skinwalkers
Detectives: Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee
No. in series: 7
Year of publication: 1986
Type of mystery: Murder
Setting & time: The Navajo Indian reservation, Four Corners, USA, and neighbouring areas; 1980s

Story: When Jim Chee narrowly escapes a murder attempt, Joe Leaphorn initially thinks he must have done something to someone to cause the attack. But Chee is as puzzled as Leaphorn is, and soon they are working together, investigating three murders that seem to be connected to the attack on Chee, but finding out the reasons for the attacks proves to be harder. Meanwhile, Chee’s attacker is planning a second attempt on his life…

Review: This is the first book in the series to feature Leaphorn and Chee together, and it is interesting to see how their investigative methods and personalities come together to form a team where each man’s strengths complement the other’s weaknesses. The writing, as before, is great and the plotting excellent.

Rating: Yet another page turner from Hillerman. 4 stars.

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I’m not going to write an author review, as I think my reviews for the books say all that needs to be said about the quality of Hillerman’s work. I may review some of the newer books once I get to them (I’m trying to read the series in order of publication) and perhaps compare them with these earlier books.

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