The Barnes & Noble Review
The great ones don't just give us stories and characters and plots and locales. The great ones give us worlds, fully imagined, fully detailed. Nero Wolfe's brownstone. Agatha Christie's English village. Raymond Chandler's Southern California. And now, Tony Hillerman's world of Navajo culture.
The opening chapter of the new book is especially noteworthy because it seems to belong in a Robin Cook or Michael Crichton medical thriller a man is dying of what appears to be the plague known as the Black Death. Hillerman makes the hospital scene, with all its high-tech equipment, even more frightening by adding touches of dour humor. This is a Tony Hillerman novel, a couple of doctors (one a cutting-edge microbiologist) arguing over the wisdom of giving a possibly dangerous corpse an autopsy?
Not to worry. We soon see Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, our friendly Navajo detectives (albeit, one of them no longer official), and we soon see the familiar daily hassles that make Hillerman's police procedurals so believable. Sexual harassment raises its ugly head. A police secretary gets peeved when she isn't let in on all the secrets. And Hillerman gets in his inevitable dig at Washington, D.C., politics as regards Native Americans: 'Kinsman's grandmother, who spoke only Navajo, had been relocated in Flagstaff where almost nobody speaks Navajo.' And again, Hillerman's wily, deadpan humor: 'By mid-afternoon the next day the Jeep was found. If you discount driving about 200 miles back and forth, and some of it over roads far too primitive even to be listed on Chee's AAAIndianCountry road map, the whole project proved to be remarkably easy.'
The observational details in this new book are quiet but spectacularly realized, such as the unpretentious doctor: '[He] was looking at his black plastic digital [watch] which obviously hadn't been bought to impress the sort of people who are impressed by expensive watches.' Or Navajo wisdom: 'Always liked that about you guys. Four days of grief and mourning for the spirit, and then get on with life. How did we white folks get into this corpse worship business? It's just dead meat, and dangerous to boot.' Or the sly, wry Hillerman humor: 'About a month into his first semester at Arizona State, Leaphorn had overcome the tendency of young Navajos to think that all white people look alike.'
Hillerman has a poet's way with the land. He rightly understands that his entire drama is being played out against a ragged and rugged land that is as much a participant in the drama as Chee and Leaphorn themselves. Without getting corny or patronizing, he's able to convey the Navajo reverence for the land and to differentiate how the white man and the Native American view the planet. He is also wise enough not to depict all white people as know-nothing boobs. Boobism is, alas, something shared by all cultures. There's plenty to go around. Hillerman stage-manages all the various plot points the brain-dead cop, the missing woman, the possible plague, the violent eagle skillfully and subtly. None of the seams show. And he does it all with a lively, easygoing style that never calls attention to itself, never jars the reader out of the world he's creating before our eyes.
There's a simple reason for Tony Hillerman's popularity. He's one of the best mystery writers who ever lived. Ed Gorman
Hillerman at his best.
San Francisco Chronicle
A crackerjack thriller.
New York Times Book Review
Tony Hillerman is a wonderful storyteller!
Washington Post Book World
The First Eagle displays all the strengths of Hillerman's writing: a vivid sense of placenuanced charactersand a complexengrossing plot.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The modern resurgence of the black death animates Hillerman's 14th tale featuring retired widower Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee. Bubonic plague has survived for centuries in the prairie-dog villages of the Southwest, where its continuing adaptation to modern antibiotics has increased its potential for mass destruction. Leaphorn is hired by a wealthy Santa Fe woman to search for her granddaughter, biologist Catherine Pollard, who has disappeared during her field work as a "flea catcher," collecting plague-carrying specimens from desert rodents. At the same time, Jim Chee arrests Robert Jano, a young Hopi man and known poacher of eagles, in the bludgeoning death of another Navajo Police officer at a site where the biologist was seen working. As Leaphorn learns more about Pollard's work from her boss in the Indian Health Service and an epidemiologist with ties to a pharmaceutical company, the U.S. Attorney's office decides to seek the death penalty against Jano, who is being represented by Chee's former fiancee, Janet Pete, recently returned from Washington, D.C. Hillerman's trademark melding of Navajo tradition and modern culture is captured with crystal clarity in this tale of an ancient scourge's resurgence in today's world. The uneasy mix of old ways and new is articulated with resonant depth as Chee, an aspiring shaman, is driven to choose between his career and his commitment to the ways of his people, and Leaphorn moves into a deeper friendship with ethnology professor, Louisa Bourebonette.
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Mag
If there's anyone out there who hasn't discovered this outstanding series...run to your nearest bookstore and load up. Hillerman has been entertaining readers with more than a dozen books in his award-winning series, and he certainly hasn't lost his touch.
Suzette Lalime Davidson
The best surprise about The First Eagle, Tony Hillerman's smart new crime novel, is that there aren't many surprises. Hillerman brings back his stalwart Navajo Tribal policemen -- Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee and retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn -- and sets the book's action in the Four Corners area of the Southwest, where several states, as well as several Indian reservations and a number of Indian and white cultures, meet. The result is a thriller that's full of insight and subtle humor, one that easily transcends the genre.
Before he turned to fiction, Hillerman covered the crime beat for a number of newspapers, and his books have the kind of verisimilitude that can't be faked. Even his dialogue has a sturdy rhythm; you feel you're eavesdropping on actual conversations and jokes. In The First Eagle, he alternates between two cases: Chee's investigation of the death of Benjamin Kinsmen, a fellow Navajo policeman, and Leaphorn's search for missing biologist Catherine Pollard, who's studying the spread of bubonic plague on the reservation.
In his search for Pollard, Leaphorn employs both conventional and unconventional methods: He seeks out not only biologists who have worked with the woman, but also a local trader who's heard talk of witchcraft. Meanwhile, Chee must deal with a Hopi man caught at a murder scene on land shared by both the Navajo and the Hopi. After seeking advice from his mentor and great uncle, he employs a traditional hunting ritual (among other things) in an attempt to prove that the man is innocent.
For Hillerman's longtime readers, the nuances of his characters' lives are as interesting as anything in his plots. And while Leaphorn's and Chee's work is informed by a traditional Navajo understanding of "beauty" and "harmony," Hillerman doesn't lionize this pair -- they're not flawless and noble. Each seems to be at a crossroads: Leaphorn's wife has died of cancer, and that experience haunts him throughout this story. (What's more, he can't seem to give up police work, despite being officially retired.) For his part, Chee is ambivalent about a possible promotion because it might force him to leave the reservation. His romantic relationships are just as tortured.
Hillerman was referring to the Native American writers Leslie Marmon Silko and M. Scott Momaday when he once said, "They are artists. I am a storyteller." He's being modest. Hillerman's storytelling is its own kind of folk art; few writers in any genre are as adept at creating such textured environments while also keeping us glued to our seats. Salon| Oct. 5, 1998
The day that Acting Lt. Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police, is called to Yells Back Butte by Officer Benny Kinsman, only to find Hopi eagle poacher Robert Jano standing over Kinsman's bleeding body, is the same day that Catherine Pollard, a vector analyst from the Arizona Health Department, vanishes from Yells Back (along with her Jeep) while she's looking for fleas, particularly the fleas that may have carried the antibiotic-resistant plague germs that killed Anderson Nez. So even though ex-Lt. Joe Leaphorn has retired from the Tribal Police (The Fallen Man, 1996), he's back on the job, looking for Pollard at the request of her wealthy aunt. The murder case couldn't seem simpler; Jano's even gotten his blood obligingly mixed with his victim's on both their clothing, and his claim that they were both nipped by an eagle isn't borne out by the eagle on the scene, which doesn't show a trace of blood itself. But Jano's public defender, who just happens to be Chee's off-again fiancee Janet Pete, returned from hobnobbing in Washington, D.C., to the Rez, but not to Chee's arms, insists that her client is innocent; Leaphorn's crisscrossing investigation keeps turning up evidence that the murder and the disappearance are two sides of the same coin; and an ambitious prosecutor is so eager for a capital conviction that there's got to be something funny. Chee brings it all, including his relationship with Janet, to a climax with a theatrical coup that would put a lesser writer on the map all by itself and that reminds you, in case you've forgotten, that Hillerman's mysteries are in a class of their own.
Dallas Morning News
Read an Excerpt
The body of Anderson Nez lay under a sheet on the gurney, waiting.
From the viewpoint of Shirley Ahkeah, sitting at her desk in the IntensiveCare Unit nursing station of the Northern Arizona Medical Center in Flagstaff,the white shape formed by the corpse of Mr. Nez reminded her of SleepingUte Mountain as seen from her aunt's hogan near Teec Nos Pos. Nez's feet,only a couple of yards from her eyes, pushed the sheet up to form the mountain'speak. Perspective caused the rest of the sheet to slope away in humps andridges, as the mountain seemed to do under its winter snow when she wasa child. Shirley had given up on finishing her night shift paperwork. Hermind kept drifting away to what had happened to Mr. Nez and trying to calculatewhether he fit into the Bitter Water clan Nez family with the grazing leaseadjoining her grandmother's place at Short Mountain. And then there wasthe question of whether his family would allow an autopsy. She rememberedthem as sheep camp traditionals, but Dr. Woody, the one who'd brought Nezin, insisted he had the family's permission.
At that moment Dr. Woody was looking at his watch, a black plastic digitaljob that obviously hadn't been bought to impress the sort of people whoare impressed by expensive watches.
"Now," Woody said, "I need to know the time the man died."
"It was early this morning," Dr. Delano said, looking surprised.It surprised Shirley, too, because Woody already knew the answer.
"No. No. No," Woody said. "I mean exactly when."
"Probably about two a.m.," Dr. Delano said, with his expressionsaying that he wasn't used to being addressed in that impatient tone. Heshrugged. "Something likethat."
Woody shook his head, grimaced. "Who would know? I mean, who wouldknow within a few minutes?" He looked up and down the hospital corridor,then pointed at Shirley. "Surely somebody would be on duty. The manwas terminal. I know the time he was infected, and the time he began registeringa fever. Now I need to know how fast it killed him. I need every bit ofinformation I can get on processes in that terminal period. What was happeningwith various vital functions? I need all that data I ordered kept when Ichecked him in. Everything."
Odd, Shirley thought. If Woody knew all that, why hadn't Nez been broughtto the hospital while there was still some hope of saving him? When Nezwas brought in yesterday he was burning with fever and dying fast.
"I'm sure it's all there," Delano said, nodding toward the clipboardWoody was holding. "You'll find it there in his chart."
Now Shirley grimaced. All that information wasn't in Nez's chart. Not yet.It should have been, and would have been even on this unusually hectic shiftif Woody hadn't rushed in demanding an autopsy, and not just an autopsybut a lot of special stuff. And that had caused Delano to be summoned, lookingsleepy and out of sorts, in his role as assistant medical superintendent,and Delano to call in Dr. Howe, who had handled the Nez case in ICU. Howe,she noticed, wasn't letting Woody bother him. He was too old a hand forthat. Howe took every case as his personal mano-a-mano battle against death.But when death won, as it often did in ICU units, he racked up a loss andforgot it. A few hours ago he had worried about Nez, hovered over him. Nowhe was simply another of the battles he'd been fated to lose.
So why was Dr. Woody causing all this excitement? Why did Woody insist onthe autopsy? And insist on sitting in on it with the pathologist? The causeof death was clearly the plague. Nez had been sent to the Intensive CareUnit on admission. Even then the infected lymph glands were swollen, andsubcutaneous hemorrhages were forming their splotches on his abdomen andlegs, the discolorations that had given the disease its "Black Death"name when it swept through Europe in the Middle Ages, killing tens of millions.
Like most medical personnel in the Four Corners country, Shirley Ahkeahhad seen Black Death before. There'd been no cases on the Big Reservationfor three or four years, but there were three already this year. One ofthe others had been on the New Mexico side of the Rez and hadn't come here.But it, too, had been fatal, and the word was that this was a vintage yearfor the old-fashioned bacteria--that it had flared up in an unusually virulentform.
It certainly had been virulent with Nez. The disease had gone quickly fromthe common glandular form into plague pneumonia. The Nez sputum, as wellas his blood, swarmed with the bacteria, and no one went into his room withoutdonning a filtration mask.
Delano, Howe, and Woody had drifted down the hall beyond Shirley's eavesdroppingrange, but the tone of the conversation suggested an agreement of some sorthad been reached. More work for her, probably. She stared at the sheet coveringNez, remembering the man under it racked by sickness and wishing they'dmove the body away. She'd been born in Farmington, daughter of an elementaryschoolteacher who had converted to Catholicism. Thus she saw the Navajo"corpse avoidance" teaching as akin to the Jewish dietary prohibitions--asmart way to prevent the spread of illnesses. But even without believingin the evil chindi that traditional Navajos knew would attend the corpseof Nez for four days, the body under the sheet provoked unhappy thoughtsof human mortality and the sorrow death causes.