refusal to slip into the hard-boiledncliches of the genre, the tough-guyismsnthat make so many procedural unreadable.nInstead, Hillerman writesnwith a kind a poetic movement thatnmirrors the graceful Dine languagenitself:nHe [Jim Chee] spoke in Navajo,nusing the long, ugly, gutturalnsound which signifies thatnmoment when the wind of lifenno longer moves inside anhuman personality, and all thendisharmonies that hayenbedeviled it escape from thennostrils to haunt the night.nHillerman’s other strengths — his willingnessnto treat the Navajo as people,ncomplete with shortcomings, doubts,nirrationalities, and private demons; hisnadmission that the Navajo governmentnis as bureaucratized and corrupt as thatnof any large municipality, as witnessednby the recent power struggle betweennTribal Chairman Peterson Zah andnousted former leader Peter MacDonaldn— loom large in the novel, which, likeneach of its predecessors in both thenLeaphorn and the Chee series, is technicallynvery well crafted and written.nBut longtime Hillerman fans hadnsome cause for disappointmentnwith Skinwalkers. Unaccountably,nHillerman shook off the opportunity tonexplore the conflict that one wouldnexpect to develop between the traditionalistnChee and the assimilationistnLeaphorn; absent that tension of motives,none wonders why he bothered tonput them in the same story at all. Andnthis time, the chain of rhalevolentnoccurrences that sets the story rollingnin all Hillerman’s books seems rathernmechanical, with many of its elementsnseen coming from a long way off.nThe pattern holds with Hillerman’snnext two novels, A Thief of Time andnhis most recent offering, Talking God.nIn both, Chee and Leaphorn againnappear together; in both, neither isnmuch differentiated from the other;nand in both, the villains recapitulatenHillerman’s two decades of rhetoricalntricks: the bad guys are archaeologistsnand other grave robbers, uncaringnAnglo functionaries. Mormons, andnwell-meaning liberals, all of whomnknowingly or not commit some violationnor another of Navajo norms. AnThief of Time, named for the Dinenphrase for “pothunter,” centers on thenongoing looting of archaeological sitesnin Navajo country — it is estimated thatnthe reservation contains more than twonhundred thousand prehistoric sites,nsome many thousands of years old —nand the international trade in stolennartifacts. For its part. Talking God,nwhose title refers to the Navajonyeibichai, the grandfather and leadingndeity of all the gods and spirits, offers anslighriy different take on the same largentheme.nIn this novel, Henry Highhawk, anhalf-NavajO curator, sends a Smithsoniannlawyer her grandparents’ remains,ndug up from a respectable New Englandnchurchyard, and suggests thatnthey take the place of Indian bones innthe museum’s display cases. Highhawknflees to the Navajo reservation to attendna ceremonial dance and wait outnhis employer’s anger. He winds upndead, of course. So, in an interestingntwist, does an exiled Chilean dissident,nthe victim of a psychotic hit man whosencharacterization marks some of Hillerman’snbest writing to date. Chee andnLeaphorn leave the reservation on separatentrails and travel to Washington toninvestigate the strange goings-on. (Onenreason for the book’s popularity may benits Eastern setting, recognizable to provincialsnalong the mid-Atlantic seaboard.)nThe traditionalist Chee isnclearly out of his element, and evennout of step with his own people; at onenpoint, he assures the Smithsonian attorneynthat owing to their fear of thendead, a fear far greater than that ofndeath itself, the Navajo would have noninterest whatever in having their ancestors’nbones shipped back to them.nLeaphorn quickly corrects him, remarkingnthat the Navajo governmentnhad indeed demanded the return of allnancestral remains: “I think,” Leaphornnexplains, “someone in the tribal bureaucracyndecided it was a chance tonmake a political point.” Someone onnthe dictator Pinochet’s payroll hasncome to the same decision, it develops,nand there lies the crux of Hillerman’snmost politically charged and cosmopolitannstory to date.nCiven that Hillerman makes use ofnthe same themes — witchcraft, deception,nand Anglo villainy—time andnagain, and has based three of his tennnovels on the subject of artifact lootingnnnalone, one might expect him quickly tonrun out of material. But he is workingnaway with the expectation of issuingnanother Leaphorn-Chee mystery latenin 1990. One might hope to see in itnan Indian villain acting from his ownnmotives, without an evil Anglo puppetnmaster behind him; one might want tonread in it a stronger moral tale of thendestructive forces of alcoholism, poverty,nand cultural displacement innNavajoland; one might wish to learnnmore in it of tribal political corruptionnoutside the framing device of supernaturalnmurder. For all those grumblings,nabout the strongest criticism one can,nlevel against Hillerman’s previousnbooks is his depiction of the Navajonreservation as a deserted wilderness.nThe place is crawling with people,nDine and Anglo alike, and laced withnbusy towns and roads, thanks in largenpart to a continuing Navajo babynboom.nWhatever the case, Tony Hillerman’snnewfound success is well deserved;nhis readers get a whirlwind tournof a magical land, a dose of arcana andnsorcery, a respectful introduction to thenlife of another nation within our own, angood jolt every now and again — innshort, something of an education. And,nas the Blessing Way has it, a walknthrough beauty all around.
nBooks by Tony HillermannThe Blessing Way (Harpern& Row, 1970)nThe Fly on the Wall (Avon, 1971)nDance Hall of the Dead (Harpern& Row, 1973)nThe Dark Wind (Avon, 1978)nListening Woman (Harpern& Row, 1978)nThe Great Taos Bank Robbery (Universitynof New Mexico Press, 1980)nPeople of Darkness (Harpern& Row, 1980)nThe Spell of New Mexico, ed. (Universitynof New Mexico Press, 1984)nThe Ghostway (Harper & Row, 1985)nThe Boy Who Made Dragonfly (Universitynof New Mexico Press, 1986)nSkinwalkers (Harper & Row, 1987)nA Thief of Time (Harper & Row, 1988)nThe Joe Leaphorn Mysteriesn(Harper & Row, 1989)nTalking God (Harper & Row, 1989)nJANUARY 1990/35n