The First Eagle (Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Series #13)by Tony Hillerman
When Acting Lt. Jim Chee catches a Hopi poacher huddled over a butchered Navajo Tribal police officer, he has an open-and-shut case--until his former boss, Joe Leaphorn, blows it wide open. Now retired from the Navajo Tribal Police, Leaphorn has been hired to find a hot-headed female biologist hunting for the key to a virulent plague lurking in the Southwest. The… See more details below
When Acting Lt. Jim Chee catches a Hopi poacher huddled over a butchered Navajo Tribal police officer, he has an open-and-shut case--until his former boss, Joe Leaphorn, blows it wide open. Now retired from the Navajo Tribal Police, Leaphorn has been hired to find a hot-headed female biologist hunting for the key to a virulent plague lurking in the Southwest. The scientist disappeared from the same area the same day the Navajo cop was murdered. Is she a suspect or another victim? And what about a report that a skinwalker--a Navajo witch--was seen at the same time and place too? For Leaphorn and Chee, the answers lie buried in a complicated knot of superstition and science, in a place where the worlds of native peoples and outside forces converge and collide.
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
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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.
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