For acting Lieutenant Jim Chee, the murder of a Navajo Tribal Police officer seems like an open-and-shut case when he discovers a Hopi poacher huddled over the victim's butchered corpse. However, Chee's newly retired predecessor, Joe Leaphorn, believes otherwise.
Hired to find a missing biologist who was searching for the key to a virulent hidden plague—and who vanished in the same area and on the same day the policeman was slain—Leaphorn suspects both events are somehow connected. And the reported sighting of a "skinwalker"—a Navajo witch—has Leaphorn and Chee seeking answers to a deadly riddle in a dark place where superstition and science collide.
About the Author
Tony Hillerman (1925–2008), an Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident since 1963, was the author of 29 books, including the popular 18-book mystery series featuring Navajo police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, two non-series novels, two children’s books, and nonfiction works. He had received every major honor for mystery fiction; awards ranging from the Navajo Tribal Council's commendation to France 's esteemed Grand prix de litterature policiere. Western Writers of America honored him with the Wister Award for Lifetime achievement in 2008. He served as president of the prestigious Mystery Writers of America, and was honored with that group’s Edgar Award and as one of mystery fiction’s Grand Masters. In 2001, his memoir, Seldom Disappointed, won both the Anthony and Agatha Awards for best nonfiction.
Hometown:Albuquerque, New Mexico
Date of Birth:May 27, 1925
Date of Death:October 26, 2008
Place of Birth:Sacred Heart, Oklahoma
Place of Death:Albuquerque, New Mexico
Education:B.A., University of Oklahoma, 1946; M.A., University of New Mexico, 1966
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.
Table of Contents
On Thursday, August 13th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Tony Hillerman to discuss THE FIRST EAGLE.
Moderator: Good evening, and welcome to the Auditorium, Tony Hillerman! We are so thrilled that you could join us this evening to chat about THE FIRST EAGLE. Is this your first online interview?
Tony Hillerman: My very first!
Paul Kuzel from Nashville, TN: Are Leaphorn and Chee based on real people you've met or read about? How did these characters evolve?
Tony Hillerman: Leap Hornhorn is based particularly on a young sheriff I got acquainted with in Texas when I was a police reporter, and then he is a meld of that man and various Navajos that I knew. Chee is a fellow I came to need later on in my fourth or fifth book when it occurred to me I needed a fellow who was younger and less assimilated. This was in a book called PEOPLE OF DARKNESS. Since he is younger I gave him characteristics of the students I knew (I was teaching at the university then).
Emily Stammitti from Lorain, OH: What gave you the inspiration to write the books that you do, and what advice would you give to young writers/journalists?
Tony Hillerman: It is hard to say. My father was a great storyteller, and I grew up having stories told to me, and I admired the business of it. To a young person who writes -- I would say they have to find their own particular way to do it. I thought I could find a formula, and I read everything about how writers write, and I still had to figure out my own technique, which is, I might say, floundering around until I get it down.
Claire from Boston, MA: Lt. Joe Leaphorn is a very modern Indian, while Officer Jim Chee, though younger, is more traditional in his outlook. Do you see this is as a trend in today's youth in the Native American community? Are many looking for their roots in old customs and traditions?
Tony Hillerman: I see it more as a kind of an aberration. The Navajos, and in fact many Indians of the Leaphorn generation, were educated in boarding schools. That is, they were taken away from their family and communities in the Hogan at the age when they were learning their language and customs. And those in the Jim Chee age group -- by then the boarding school system had been abandoned, so they stayed with their families and learned more of their traditions.
Larry from San Diego, CA: What do you see as the greatest challenge in writing mysteries? Is it generating the intricate plots? Thanks for the hours of entertainment!
Tony Hillerman: I think a mystery writer has to recognize that his first job is to entertain the people who buy his books. But since I have the pulpit, I like to use the opportunity also to do some ax grinding and education -- i.e., to show my high regard for the Navajo people and give a glimpse of the Indian cultures which I have high respect for. But definitely your first job as a mystery writer is to entertain.
Bob Diehl from Erie, PA: Tony, How did you get your start writing mystery novels? I really want to write but always find a reason not to. Any tips?
Tony Hillerman: Well, I started, I guess, by spending years as a newswriter and as a journalist. That taught me how to deal with the language, narrative, etc. I had written six million words literally for hire before I wrote fiction. I also think you learn by studying the authors that you admire for the way that they write, and then you go back and check the way they make transitions from scenes, how they develop characters, handle dialogue, etc. You look at all of this and learn from it.
John Walters from Durango, CO: Do you plan to write of your combat experiences in World War II? Are many people are interested?
Tony Hillerman: My publisher, HarperCollins, is talking to me about writing a memoir, and in our conversations they are very interested in the way I personally won World War II [laughs] and in having me put down these stories and how I twice attained the rank of private first class (you get $5.00 more a year as a private!). It was an interesting experience, and I think I will write it, but it will be a long time until it is published.
Bonn Bass from Borrego Springs, CA: How do the Navajo react to the stories? Do they want input on upcoming tales?
Tony Hillerman: I was very nervous, frankly, on how they would react, but they have reacted very well. After my third book, PEOPLE OF DARKNESS, came out, I got an invitation to come to a Navajo tribal fair, and I rode in their parade and I got a special plaque dedicated to me for being a "friend of the Navejos" because of my authentic depiction of their character. They also use many of my books in their schools for reading assignments, and I am very pleased by that. I once asked a Navajo teenager if he had read any of my books, and he said, "Mr. Hillerman, we either have to read your books or drop out of school."
Bobbi from Salem, OH: I've read all of your books...Bravo! With Leaphorn's retirement, do you foresee a problem keeping him in future novels? Or might you introduce a new character (not to replace him, for he's irreplaceable) but to give Chee another foil? Thank you!
Tony Hillerman: I intend to keep him in retirement at work. I think he will be very bored sitting around and with all of his contacts with the police. I intend him to be doing all sorts of odd jobs in future books.
Melissa Ryan from Pennsylvania: Do you think writing about the native peoples of the Southwest opens up new windows of possibility for your plots than you would have in a "traditional" mystery?
Tony Hillerman: Yes, I do. More important than that, it gives me a way to drag the reader -- whether he likes it or not -- into the Navajo culture where knowledge of the Hopi or Zuni culture is necessary for what is going on.
Mike Smith from Rochester, NY: Will Joe Leaphorn be getting into the private detective business in future books?
Tony Hillerman: Joe Leaphorn is going to, even thought he feels a little unease for it -- but he will think of the people he works for as clients and as accepting assignments from them -- as he does incidentally in THE FIRST EAGLE.
Fred Walski from Chicago, IL: Tony we would love to hear more audiobooks in your own voice. Do you plan on reading any future books?
Tony Hillerman: I think the guy that reads them now is a lot better than me. I tend to pronounce things like helicopter as "heliocopter" and "far" as "faar" and "waare" for wire -- which is wrong! The audios are recorded in New York and Boston studios, and they want me to use the East Coast accent. I can't use my genuine Middle American accent. In fact I haven't really been invited to read any more of them lately.
Bill and Sharon from Lady's Island, SC: We've read and loved all your books. Keep up the good work. Especially like the fact that you have not succumbed to four-letter words (like so many other authors) that do nothing to advance the story and are only used to hook younger readers. Will Chee and Janet ever get married? How about more middle-age romance for Leaphorn?
Tony Hillerman: I might say that the answer to will Chee and Janet ever get married is probably answered in THE FIRST EAGLE, and I don't want to give it away. Leaphorn has found a real friend in Elisa, the mythology professor. I appreciate your comments. One of my friends recently accused me of drifting off into eroticism because I had two of those characters shaking hands.
Elaine from Malvern, NY: Have you ever done anything using your own childhood experiences with Indians during the '30s?
Tony Hillerman: No, I haven't. I may if I actually do write this proposed memoir. I would discuss the cowboy-and-Indian games that I played with my Seminole and Potawatomi friends. I might add that the Potawatomi -- knowing who won out West -- wanted to be the cowboys, and we had to be the Indians [laughs].
Alexa from Washington, D.C.: Are there any special charities that directly support the Navajo that you would recommend we make donations to?
Tony Hillerman: Maria, my wife, and I support the St. Bonaventure at Crown Point, New Mexico. They run school buses and water trucks that take water out to hogans on the reservations. This is an extremely important service because water is a problem in the desert, as you might imagine. There is also another good one, another charity that is extremely effective called the Gathering Place, also at Crown Point, NM. They help the Navajos develop their skills -- many are excellent craftsmen -- and market these talents. Maria and I support both of these.
Joe Villagrana from Manassas, VA: We've met twice some time ago in Albuquerque, though you may not remember me. At one time I lived in Gallup. Of course I love your stories about the reservations. My question is: When you come down to the D.C. area on September 15th, will you sign my other books? I'm not sure of what is allowed. I also keep tabs on Nathan Stone, he was the monument director at Coronado. He's now at Ft. Shelton. Thanks.
Tony Hillerman: The answer is yes! I will sign your books!
Ann Schultz from Chicago, IL: How long have you been writing Leaphorn/Chee books?
Tony Hillerman: I started in 1968, and I finished my first in 1970, when it was published. So it has been a long time! Thirty years!
Brad Cameron from Wilkesboro, NC: Do you have a favorite among the books you have written?
Tony Hillerman: I have favorite spots in all of them. Everyone of them has something wrong with them I want to fix. They are never as good as you hoped they would be. I guess it would be A THIEF OF TIME. Maybe this new one. It takes a while to like a book right after you finish because you are sick of it, but I think THE FIRST EAGLE will come out high on the list.
Bonn Bass from Borrego Springs, CA: Have you encountered any resistance to your depictions of sacred ceremonies and practices?
Tony Hillerman: The one reason I like to write about the Navajos is that their ceremonies are not secret. They are "curing ceremonies," almost like an Irish wake. The Navajos do this to restore a person to harmony and health. If you are a friend, you can join in to give your good wishes. DANCE HALL OF THE DEAD takes place on a Navajo reservation and depicts these ceremonies. The Zunis adopted my books in their school system. The kids at one school even asked me to be their commencement speaker. I was called in to see their school principal, and he cross-examined me about some of the references in my books to their practices. When I explained that all of my research came from Ph.D. theses and scholarly books, they were content. That is the only trouble I have had in that respect, but that wasn't even that bad.
Becky from Long Island, NY: Do you see Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee going on into the future, or is there a future detective in mind?
Tony Hillerman: No, I can't imagine writing a mystery without them in it!
Marilyn from New Hampshire: Janet Pete is back. Can't Chee find someone more compatible? He's such a nice guy!
Tony Hillerman: See the concluding chapter of THE FIRST EAGLE!
Larry Mickey from Westfield, NC: Are you a reader of Louis L'Amour? You both have the gift of describing the natural environment surrounding your stories so well.
Tony Hillerman: I read only one of his books. Just before he died, my wife and I were invited to a barbecue at his ranch. We were away, so I didnt get to go. I only have one bone to pick with him. Once when I was cross-examining my older son, Tony Hillerman Jr., about whether he had read any of my books, he said, "Oh, Dad, why don't you write more like Louis L'Amour?" [laughs]
Bobbi Hahn from Salem, OH: You write so knowledgeably and in depth on the Navajo culture. Are there certain traditions/rituals that you will not reveal in your books because they are sacred and/or telling would be disrespectful? Thank you.
Tony Hillerman: No, because the Navajos do not have that tradition. Their rituals are curing ceremonies, and they invite friends and family. Some Indian tribes do have their secrecy, and I won't infringe on that privacy.
Rose Marie Wiley from Long Island, NY: Have any of your books been made into motion pictures?
Tony Hillerman: Yes. Robert Redford has all of them optioned, and he hired Errol Morris to direct them (he is a famous documentary maker who did "The Thin Blue Line"). Redford made a movie of my book THE DARK WIND. When he got back from Cuba, he contacted me and wanted me to see it and asked me if I wanted my name taken off of it. I have to say that I have seen worse movies, but it wasn't very good. It wasn't released in the U.S. You can rent it in video stores, though, if you are hard up for something to see. Fred Ward plays Leaphorn, and Lou Diamond Philips plays Chee in the movie. Redford has a script based on SKINWALKERS, but I don't know what the plans are.
Julia from Westchester, IL: You're my first chat room experience. You've got a fantastic sense of humor! Which of your characters best reflects your own lighthearted outlook? Can't wait to read the memoir you're considering. Do give it some thought.
Tony Hillerman: Thanks! I am trying to remember which of my characters is lighthearted and I cant, but the character that most resembles me is Leaphorn. He is more my age and my type of guy.
Susan J. from New York City: I love all of your books, and I am interested to know who some of your favorite authors are.
Tony Hillerman: I read Elmore Leonard, Norman Zollinger (a historical novelist -- he is a very good writer), Raymond Chandler, and E. B. White.
Bobbi Hahn from Salem, OH: I'm about halfway through THE FIRST EAGLE and am enjoying it immensely, as I do all of your books. One of the things I like best is the way you describe the Southwest -- I can really "see" it, which was marvelous in the years preceding my first trip out there. I must confess I left part of my soul there, and I return as often as possible, which is never often enough. My question -- how did you come up with the idea of using the plague in this book? I know it's a serious problem in that area, but I admire the author's mind in finding a way to incorporate it! Thank you.
Tony Hillerman: About 40 years ago I wrote an article for a magazine about a man named Brian Miller and how he tracked down the source of the bubonic plague in the 1950s. It always stuck in my mind as a good idea for fiction. We have the bubonic plague in the Four Corners area every foru or five years, also.
Jerry from San Diego, CA: Is it true that you attended an all-girls school, and how does that affect your writing?
Tony Hillerman: I attended the first eight grades at a boarding school for Indian girls. It taught me that girls are very different from me -- but that Indian boys are just the same as me. This is an important lesson if you are going to write about them.
Brad Cameron from Wilkesboro, NC: The books I have read give a good geography lesson of the Southwest. You currently live in New Mexico. Did you grow up in that area or move there later in life?
Tony Hillerman: I grew up in Oklahoma and got to New Mexico for the first time in 1945, and I have lived in New Mexico since '52, which makes me what we call a semi-native.
Bonn Bass from Borrego Springs, CA: Do you have a favorite mystery by another author?
Tony Hillerman: I think maybe the best mystery I ever read is A COFFIN FOR DIMITRIOS by Eric Ambler (one of his first novels) or Raymond Chandler's THE LITTLE SISTER.
2 Dogs from Dallas: Yatahe, brother!
Tony Hillerman: Well, Yatahe!
Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Tony Hillerman, and best of luck to you. Before you go, tell us -- how was your first online chat experience?
Tony Hillerman: It was great, aside from me being down in the lobby when I should have been on the telephone at first -- everything was smoothly done and I enjoyed it. A lot of good astute questions.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love Tony Hillerman and it saddened me when he died to think there would be no further adventures with Chee and Leaphorn however, this book had 26 pages of introductory notes and 5 empty pages at the end. This one should have been deeply discounted.
Many misspellings interrrupt smooth reading, and plot repeated often; weak conclusion and not as gripping as earlier works.
Tony Hillerman is my favorite author. Every book is unique. 'The First Eagle' was a gripping novel--I read it in one sitting! If there is anyone out there who has not yet read a Hillerman novel, you are truly missing out. His novels are very symbolic and they way he writes allows the reader to picture the story he tells. He really dives into the culture and customs of the Navajo Way. I love reading books that are both entertaining and educational. His books offer a challenging alternative to the other novels on the market today. I can't wait for the next one!
In Hillerman's suspense novel, Navajo Tribal policeman Jim Chee and his mentor, Joe Leaphorn, discover a deadly killer stalking the reservation in the most chilling and beautifully crafted novel from the master of Southwestern suspense. In addition to its finely crafted wrought plot, this book offers a wealth of Tony Hillerman's signature gifts--glorious descriptions of the high desert, delicately drawn characters, and eloquent insights into the foibles and wisdom of the native peoples.
My first thought, upon finishing this novel, was 'Jim Chee would be a hard man to be in love with'. This book reminded me a lot of the novel where Jim 'breaks up' with Mary Landon. And maybe he seems so hard because he is coming from a different cultural tradition where some things really are non-negotiable. This is the first book where I really felt like Chee and Leaphorn were really starting to like each other. While some of the plot devices have been used in this series again, the story was interesting.
A Hopi eagle poacher is discovered over the body of a murdered Navajo Tribal police officer. Looks like an open and shut case until Joe Leaphorn identifies some unanswered questions. Solution¿find the ¿first eagle.¿ Once Joe convinces Chee that the case against the Hopi has some big holes in it, they work together to find the real killer and along the way find another body which turns out to be linked to the first murder. Janet Pete is back to defend the accused killer. Her presence adds to Chee¿s problems as he tries to figure out what his feelings for Janet and Bernie are.
Very nice book. I read Fallen Man a long time ago, and didn't remember much about it except the pacing, setting, and culture of the Navajos made it interesting. This book again paints a great picture of the Navajo nation with its setting and pacing. This story is made better by telling the tale of man's struggle with plagues. If you are interested in ideas around the spread of virus's and killer bacteria, then you may enjoy this book. I certainly found the crime detective story and the plague detective story compelling.
I always enjoy a Tony Hillerman mystery - light reading, interesting characters, interesting Arizona backdrop. I also like the way he starts with three seemingly unrelated stories and they get closer and closer together until they blend. He has a style that appears so simple, but I'm sure it was difficult to develop.In this story, Jim Chee comes upon Robert Jano kneeling over the almost dead body of Officer Kinsman and arrests him for murder. Jano has a motive - he was paching an eagle for a Hopi Ceremony. It is not the first time Kinsman has caught him doing this. One description I liked the best was that of an old Indian woman named Old Lady Notah who was a sheepherder. She believed she had seen a skinwalker, a devil, and described him as part snowman with a trunk on his back like an elephant and his face flashed like a camera.
I am an old New Mexico boy and I have been to the places Mr. Hillerman writes about. His knowledge of the history, customs and traditions of the Navajo People is right on. I find his ability to weave a fictitious mystery through these customs and traditions a wonderful art. I have read all that he has written and each in it's own way takes me on a remarkable journey that no other author has shown me. Thank you Mr. Hillerman, I will miss you.