The Barnes & Noble Review
Ed Gorman Reviews Tony Hillerman's Hunting Badger Not all masters of the form get better as their careers move along. Some get sloppy, some just seem to fall out of touch with readers, and some just give up writing altogether.
Not Tony Hillerman.
It's interesting that the opening chapter of his last novel (The First Eagle) reads a bit like Robin Cook with its medical speculations, and that his new book, Hunting Badger, has the air of a political thriller. Rather than repeat himself, Hillerman appears to be pushing in new and exciting directions.
In its simplest form, Hunting Badger is a novel about the collision of two law enforcement agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (or The Federal Bureau of Ineptitude, as some call it) and the cops of the Navajo Indian reservation. Both groups are hunting for the men who robbed a casino and killed a police officer in the process. They could be hiding anywhere in the vast search area.
Hillerman has certainly shown displeasure before, if not anger, with the way the federal government deals with reservation law and methods the Great White Father of Washington telling all the heathens how to do things. But I can't recall any other Hillerman novel that seems so forthrightly scornful of the feds. And, in Hillerman's version of events (an actual manhunt inspired this book), it's the kind of well-deserved scorn people felt after the needless slaughter and cover-up by the FBI at Waco. Maybe becauseI'mstill angry about Waco myself, or maybe because I'm a political thriller junkie, I think this is the most spellbinding novel Hillerman has ever written, especially since he brings the retired Joe Leaphorn back onstage.
It's a breathless and informative read the strutting feds out for glory, sometimes so obsessed with style and good press that the manhunt seems irrelevant and Leaphorn and Jim Chee remembering Navajo and Ute myths and allegories that seem to be a subtext for the manhunt here. Talk about your cultural collision.
This is an angry, dramatic, sly, wry, honest, and flawlessly composed novel that could make a great movie in tradition of "The Fugitive." Are you listening, Hollywood? Hillerman's always been a master. He just took his mastery up another notch.
Ed Gorman's latest novels include Daughter of Darkness, Harlot's Moon, and Black River Falls, the latter of which "proves Gorman's mastery of the pure suspense novel," says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. ABC-TV has optioned the novel as a movie. Gorman is also the editor of Mystery Scene magazine, which Stephen King calls "indispensable" for mystery readers.
Read an Excerpt
Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai had been leaning on the doorframe looking out at the night about three minutes or so before he became aware that Cap Stoner was watching him.
"Just getting some air," Bai said. "Too damn much cigarette smoke in there."
"You're edgy tonight," Cap said, moving up to stand in the doorway beside him. "You young single fellas ain't supposed to have anything worrying you."
"I don't," Teddy said.
"Except maybe staying single," Cap said. "There's that."
"Not with me," Teddy said, and looked at Cap to see if he could read anything in the old man's expression. But Cap was looking out into the Ute Casino's parking lot, showing only the left side of his face, with its brush of white mustache, short-cropped white hair and the puckered scar left along the cheekbone when, as Cap told it, a woman he was arresting for Driving While Intoxicated fished a pistol out of her purse and shot him. That had been about forty years ago, when Stoner had been with the New Mexico State Police only a couple of years and had not yet learned that survival required skepticism about all his fellow humans. Now Stoner was a former captain, augmenting his retirement pay as a rent-a-cop security director at the Southern Ute gambling establishment just as Teddy was doing on his off-duty nights.
"What'd ya tell that noisy drunk at the blackjack table?"
"Just the usual," Teddy said. "Calm down or he'd have to leave."
Cap didn't comment. He stared out into the night. "Saw some lightning," he said, pointing. "Just barely. Must be way out there over Utah. Time for it, too."
"Yeah," Teddy said, wantingCap to go away.
"Time for the monsoons to start," Cap said. "The thirteenth, isn't it? I'm surprised so many people are out here trying their luck on Friday the thirteenth."
Teddy nodded, providing no fodder to extend this conversation.
But Cap didn't need any. "But then it's payday. They got to get rid of all that money in their pay envelopes." Cap looked at his watch. "Three-thirty-three," he announced. "Almost time for the truck to get here to haul off the loot to the bank."
And, Teddy thought, a few minutes past the time when a little blue Ford Escort was supposed to have arrived in the west lot. "Well," he said, "I'll go prowl around the parking areas. Scare off the thieves."
Teddy found neither thieves nor a little blue Escort in the west lot. When he looked back at the employees only doorway, Cap was no longer there. A few minutes late. A thousand reasons that could happen. No big deal. He enjoyed the clean air, the predawn high-country chill, the occasional lightning over the mountains. He walked out of the lighted area to check his memory of the midsummer starscape. Most of the constellations were where he remembered they should be. He could recall their American names, and some of the names his Navajo grandmother had taught him, but only two of the names he'd wheedled out of his Kiowa-Comanche father. Now was that moment his grandmother called the "deep dark time," but the late-rising moon was causing a faint glow outlining the shape of Sleeping Ute Mountain. He heard the sound of laughter from somewhere. A car door slammed. Then another. Two vehicles pulled out of the east lot, heading for the exit. Coyotes began a conversation of yips and yodels among the pinons in the hills behind the casino. The sound of a truck gearing down came from the highway below. A pickup pulled into the employees only lot, parked, produced the clattering sound of something being unloaded.
Teddy pushed the illumination button on his Timex. Three-forty-six. Now the little blue car was late enough to make him wonder a little. A man wearing what looked like coveralls emerged into the light carrying an extension ladder. He placed it against the casino wall, trotted up it to the roof.
"Now what's that about?" Teddy said, half-aloud. Probably an electrician. Probably something wrong with the air-conditioning. "Hey," he shouted, and started toward the ladder. Another pickup pulled into the employee lotthis one a big oversize-cab job. Doors opened. Two men emerged. National Guard soldiers apparently, dressed in their fatigues. Carrying what? They were walking fast toward the EMPLOYEES ONLY door. But that door had no outside knob. It was the accounting room, opened only from the inside and only by guys as important as Cap Stoner.
Stoner was coming out of the side entrance now. He pointed at the roof, shouted, "Who's that up there? What the hell"
"Hey," Teddy yelled, trotting toward the two men, unsnapping the flap on his holster. "What's "
Both men stopped. Teddy saw muzzle flashes, saw Cap Stoner fall backward, sprawled on the pavement. The men spun toward him, swinging their weapons. He was fumbling with his pistol when the first bullets struck him.