“Step into the shoes of him who lures the enemy to death.”
—from the Navajo Enemy Way

On a windswept bluff high above the reddish-brown San Juan River, four states—Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado—converge. Visitors to the area come to play a game of twister at the Four Comers Monument, contorting themselves so that each of their limbs touches a different state. Then, remarking upon the windswept, sandy desolation of the place, they hurry off to the greener ground of the Rockies or the populous Grand Canyon. For most of them, there is not much to see, not much reason to linger on this arid plateau. But to the Navajo Indians who inhabit it, the Four Corners country, bounded by four sacred mountains of abalone, white shell, turquoise, and redstone, is a land of peerless beauty, exalted in song and story as “the center of the earth.”

The Diné Bike’yah, the Navajo nation, is also a terrifying place, populated by millions of mischief-working ghosts, by witches and were-animals; for in death, the Navajo believe, one’s soul flies from the body, leaving behind not only the mortal shell but also any good characteristics one may have had in life. Only the newborn and the very old are spared this fate; their souls merely vanish into the void. The rest, victims of alcohol poisoning, of Kit Carson’s bullets, of ancient famines and plagues, of poverty and despair and sickness, wander the land, tormenting the living—who in turn practice a complex body of ritual to ward off malevolent spirits, and who until very recently were known to lynch suspected witches. From this enchanted landscape, among the fearful living and the restless dead, novelist and former police-beat reporter Tony Hillerman has drawn the material for a nearly dozen popular mysteries published in the last twenty years—as well as the wherewithal of detective fiction.

Hillerman’s fame came slowly. In the middle 1960’s, he has said, he was inspired to write about the Diné—”the people,” as the Navajo call themselves—after an incident in Chinle Wash, at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly. While sitting on its banks, he heard a whistling sound that made him think of Kokopelli, the humpbacked, flute-playing god of the prehistoric Anasazi who had occupied the country before the invading Navajo arrived from Canada in the 13th century. The whistling turned out to have been the tinkling of bells from a flock of sheep, the sound distorted by the weathered sandstone walls of the canyon. It was epiphany enough. “That day,” Hillerman has written, “I decided I would try to communicate my feelings for the Navajo and their sacred land.”

For the first few years, this gifted convert preached to the choir. Hillerman’s books enjoyed only cult status, devoured by an eager handful of river-runners and desert rats—and even a few Navajo—in the high country of New Mexico and northern Arizona. These readers spread the word to anyone who would listen; in the late 1970’s, one could hear Hillerman touted in Flagstaff bars and Albuquerque sporting-good shops, but could rarely find his novels in bookstores. With such a small audience Hillerman’s first mystery, The Blessing Way (1970), died a quick death; his second book, The Fly on the Wall, was remaindered almost immediately after its release. (Now that the genial Hillerman, in his early 60’s and retired from teaching and journalism, has made it to the big time, his entire body of work is in print.) But in the last few years, each of his books—standard police procedural tempered by ethnological observation—has been released to wider and wider reception, first throughout the West, and lately east of the Hundredth Meridian. His most recent novel. Talking God, has occupied a spot on the best-seller list of The New York Times since its publication in the spring of 1989, clinching its author’s nationwide reputation. Robert Redford, having bought film rights to all the author’s books, is now producing The Dark Wind, due for release in 1990. But despite his newfound fame, Hillerman still thinks of his fans as a cadre of “desert rats and anthropologists.”

The Blessing Way is vintage, even archetypal Hillerman; in its pages emerge the fictional patterns and one of the two protagonists that Hillerman has employed ever since. It spins the tale of the seemingly supernatural murder of one Luis Horseman, a Many Ruins Canyon Navajo on the run from a “Navajo Wolf”—that is, a warlock able to metamorphose into any number of animals. Just which animal varies from one part of the Navajo nation to another, an important fact that leads Joe Leaphorn, Hillerman’s Navajo detective hero, to conclude that the suspected wolf is in truth a well-read “Los Angeles Navajo,” raised off the reservation and unaware of narrow local custom.

Hillerman abandoned Navajo country for his next book. The Fly on the Wall, a political thriller. However, in Dance Hall of the Dead, Hillerman returns his readers to the little-known world of the Zuni people of eastern New Mexico, who each year honor the Shalako, a bird spirit who brings messages from their gods. A neighboring Navajo boy, trained to play the ceremonial part of the Shalako, has disappeared at Zuni Pueblo, and it is Leaphorn’s task to find him among the, thousands of visitors who have streamed in to watch the week-long rituals—among them, again, a Navajo Wolf and an army of stoned hippies. Hillerman’s tale touches on many interesting elements, among them being the ancient hatred of Navajo for Zuni. (Many traditionalists still believe that a Zuni has to scalp a Navajo before being admitted into the closed religious fraternities of the Shalako and its allied kachinas.) And it introduces a theme he will develop in later novels: the clash between living Native Americans and Anglo archaeologists, who, it is widely held in Indian country, are nothing more than glorified grave robbers.

In the middle 1970’s, Hillerman introduced a second Navajo policeman hero, Sergeant Jim Chee, who figured in his next three novels: The Ghost Way, The Dark Wind, and People of Darkness. Like Leaphorn, Chee is intensely curious about white people—belagdana, from the Navajo approximation for “American”—and their odd customs; at the University of New Mexico, he had “studied anthropology, sociology, and American literature in class. Every waking moment he studied the way white men behaved. All four subjects fascinated him.” But Chee, from a rural background, is more traditional than Leaphorn, also trained in anthropology and literature at Arizona State University; along with his academic courses, Chee has for years studied to become a hatathali, a singer of The Blessing Way and other purifying rites. Leaphorn is an assimilationist, seemingly content to live in two worlds, white and red; Chee’s aim is to bring what he can learn from the alien world into his quest for the Navajo ideal—hozro, or internal and external harmony with one’s surroundings. When Leaphorn witnesses a death, he may unplug the telephone and take a drink or two; when Chee sees the horrors of his time—for instance, Navajo drunks “sprawled in Gallup alleys, frozen in the sagebrush beside the road to Shiprock, mangled like jackrabbits on the asphalt of US Highway 666″—he goes to a medicine man for catharsis, for, as Changing Woman taught the Dine, “returning to beauty require[s] a cure.”

Despite their fictive differences, however, Leaphorn and Chee behave almost identically in the tales of their respective series; one senses that Hillerman introduced the second character only to avoid wearing out Leaphorn’s welcome. Nowhere is this more clear than in Skinwalkers (1987), Hillerman’s first novel after a long silence in the early and middle 1980’s, in which Leaphorn and Chee are brought together for the first time.

Again, the subject is witchcraft. Chee, who has been undergoing initiation rites to become a shaman of his clan, is ambushed while asleep in his hogan—the traditional octagonal hut of the Navajo, its door always facing east to the sunrise—by a shotgunwielding, unseen assailant. Investigating the wreckage after the assault, Chee stumbles upon a small bead of worked bone, the unmistakable weapon of one bewitched, a “skinwalker,” who uses it to inject his or her “corpse sickness” into someone else and thereby be freed of the curse. Chee turns to Leaphorn for help in solving the case, and Leaphorn is only too happy to oblige, for he harbors a deep hatred of witchcraft, which he considers to be a foreign aberration introduced to the Navajo by Indians from the Great Plains. Leaphorn, a technician who obsessively keeps track of crimes on the Navajo reservation with colored map pins—red for alcohol-related arrests, black for complaints of sorcery, and the like—soon determines that the attack on Chee is part of a larger, geometric pattern of seemingly supernatural murders.

Skinwalkers showcases Hillerman’s many virtues as a writer of detective fiction, chief among them being his refusal to slip into the hard-boiled cliches of the genre, the tough-guyisms that make so many procedural unreadable. Instead, Hillerman writes with a kind a poetic movement that mirrors the graceful Dine language itself:

He [Jim Chee] spoke in Navajo, using the long, ugly, guttural sound which signifies that moment when the wind of life no longer moves inside a human personality, and all the disharmonies that have bedeviled it escape from the nostrils to haunt the night.

Hillerman’s other strengths—his willingness to treat the Navajo as people, complete with shortcomings, doubts, irrationalities, and private demons; his admission that the Navajo government is as bureaucratized and corrupt as that of any large municipality, as witnessed by the recent power struggle between Tribal Chairman Peterson Zah and ousted former leader Peter MacDonald—loom large in the novel, which, like each of its predecessors in both the Leaphorn and the Chee series, is technically very well crafted and written.

But longtime Hillerman fans had some cause for disappointment with Skinwalkers. Unaccountably, Hillerman shook off the opportunity to explore the conflict that one would expect to develop between the traditionalist Chee and the assimilationist Leaphorn; absent that tension of motives, one wonders why he bothered to put them in the same story at all. And this time, the chain of malevolent occurrences that sets the story rolling in all Hillerman’s books seems rather mechanical, with many of its elements seen coming from a long way off.

The pattern holds with Hillerman’s next two novels, A Thief of Time and his most recent offering, Talking God. In both, Chee and Leaphorn again appear together; in both, neither is much differentiated from the other; and in both, the villains recapitulate Hillerman’s two decades of rhetorical tricks: the bad guys are archaeologists and other grave robbers, uncaring Anglo functionaries. Mormons, and well-meaning liberals, all of whom knowingly or not commit some violation or another of Navajo norms. A Thief of Time, named for the Dine phrase for “pothunter,” centers on the ongoing looting of archaeological sites in Navajo country—it is estimated that the reservation contains more than two hundred thousand prehistoric sites, some many thousands of years old—and the international trade in stolen artifacts. For its part, Talking God, whose title refers to the Navajo yeibichai, the grandfather and leading deity of all the gods and spirits, offers a slightly different take on the same large theme.

In this novel, Henry Highhawk, a half-Navajo curator, sends a Smithsonian lawyer her grandparents’ remains, dug up from a respectable New England churchyard, and suggests that they take the place of Indian bones in the museum’s display cases. Highhawk flees to the Navajo reservation to attend a ceremonial dance and wait out his employer’s anger. He winds up dead, of course. So, in an interesting twist, does an exiled Chilean dissident, the victim of a psychotic hit man whose characterization marks some of Hillerman’s best writing to date. Chee and Leaphorn leave the reservation on separate trails and travel to Washington to investigate the strange goings-on. (One reason for the book’s popularity may be its Eastern setting, recognizable to provincials along the mid-Atlantic seaboard.) The traditionalist Chee is clearly out of his element, and even out of step with his own people; at one point, he assures the Smithsonian attorney that owing to their fear of the dead, a fear far greater than that of death itself, the Navajo would have no interest whatever in having their ancestors’ bones shipped back to them. Leaphorn quickly corrects him, remarking that the Navajo government had indeed demanded the return of all ancestral remains: “I think,” Leaphorn explains, “someone in the tribal bureaucracy decided it was a chance to make a political point.” Someone on the dictator Pinochet’s payroll has come to the same decision, it develops, and there lies the crux of Hillerman’s most politically charged and cosmopolitan story to date.

Given that Hillerman makes use of the same themes—witchcraft, deception, and Anglo villainy—time and again, and has based three of his ten novels on the subject of artifact looting alone, one might expect him quickly to run out of material. But he is working away with the expectation of issuing another Leaphorn-Chee mystery late in 1990. One might hope to see in it an Indian villain acting from his own motives, without an evil Anglo puppet master behind him; one might want to read in it a stronger moral tale of the destructive forces of alcoholism, poverty, and cultural displacement in Navajo-land; one might wish to learn more in it of tribal political corruption outside the framing device of supernatural murder. For all those grumblings, about the strongest criticism one can, level against Hillerman’s previous books is his depiction of the Navajo reservation as a deserted wilderness. The place is crawling with people, Dine and Anglo alike, and laced with busy towns and roads, thanks in large part to a continuing Navajo baby boom.

Whatever the case, Tony Hillerman’s newfound success is well deserved; his readers get a whirlwind tour of a magical land, a dose of arcana and sorcery, a respectful introduction to the life of another nation within our own, a good jolt every now and again—in short, something of an education. And, as The Blessing Way has it, a walk through beauty all around. 


[Talking God, by Tony Hillerman (New York: Harper & Row) 239 pp., $17.95]