"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Monday, May 16, 2011

Three by Tony Hillerman (book reviews)

I've enjoyed every one of Tony Hillerman's mysteries set in Navajo country, but here are three I happened to review, for SLJ (column recommending selected adult books to older teens). These are a random assortment - just ones I was lucky enough to review at the time they came out. They're the kind of books it's nice to revisit after a few years.

The First Eagle (1998)
Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is investigating the murder of a fellow officer--apparently committed by a young Hopi poaching eagles for ceremonial purposes. Chee's former mentor, Joe Leaphorn, is now retired and on his first case as a private detective, looking for a missing biologist who has been studying the spread of infectious diseases on the reservation. The men's destinies intersect once more in this case in which clues, like eagles, can only be found and understood by those who belong to the world of the reservation. 

Hillerman communicates a sense of the great space, beauty, and physical hardship of the desert landscape, and of the character of the people who live there. The mystery is set against a cultural backdrop of conflicts between Navajo and Hopi, Tribal and FBI law enforcement, sheep camp and city Navajo, and government and academic scientists studying disease outbreaks. The solution to the murder mystery comes stunningly into focus once the clues are all present and understood--but sadly (and true to life), the larger question of justice on the reservation, like the fate of the first eagle, is left unresolved. A disturbing but fascinating story.

The Wailing Wind (2002)
Young Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Navajo Tribal Police is pursuing routine duties when the dispatcher asks her to check out an abandoned truck in an arroyo. Bernie is no longer "the greenest rookie," but when she finds a murder victim she is inexperienced enough to make a big mistake. Still, her interest in botany leads her to collect some plant specimens at the crime scene, and they prove to be important clues. 

FBI agents soon take over the investigation; they are oblivious to any nuance of place or culture that could lead them to a solution. Sergeant Jim Chee, Bernie's supervisor, characteristically goes his own way. Meanwhile, Wiley Denton, a rich eccentric, has asked retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn to find his missing wife. The investigators set out in different directions, and the distances between them seem as vast and lonely as the New Mexico landscape. 

Having the advantage of following all three main characters, readers soon know where they are headed; the interest and suspense lie in seeing how these quirky and likable people occasionally glance off one another and exchange crucial information. Finally, Chee, Manuelito, and Leaphorn converge to see the whole picture. Hillerman's fans will enjoy revisiting these characters and their world, but newcomers will miss a lot, and would be better advised to read the earlier stories first.

The Sinister Pig (2003)
Here, Hillerman masterfully juggles the pieces of a political puzzle involving billions of dollars in missing oil royalties owed to Native Americans; the drug war; and a badly fragmented bureaucracy. 

When a stranger is found murdered on Navajo land, Sergeant Jim Chee of the Tribal Police steps in, but before long the investigation is joined (and muddied) by a plethora of government agencies including the FBI, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Bureau of Land Management-- and by Navajo, Hopi, and Apache tribal viewpoints. Help comes from two old friends, the retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and the former Navajo tribal policewoman Bernadette Manuelito (featured in The Wailing Wind), who had escaped a stalled relationship with Chee to join the U.S. Border Patrol.

The victim had been looking into possible fraud using old oil pipelines (the "sinister pig" of the title is a piece of switching equipment used in the industry). Meanwhile, another kind of sinister pig, the blue-blooded Rawley Winsor, appears at a private ranch in the area, and through this character's deep involvement in drug trafficking, Hillerman presents a trenchant perspective on the drug war. Winsor's mistress and his driver, two more colorful characters, add an interesting subplot, as do the prickly Bernie and the bashful Chee, when their attraction is reawakened.

The story might sound complicated, but the author breezes through, making it look easy. This outing ventures beyond the Navajo landscape that Hillerman's fans expect, but they-and general readers-should enjoy the broader geographical and social canvas just as well, in this tale of ordinary people unraveling knots of fraud and skulduggery.

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