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