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
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.