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.