Anne Hillerman Has Yet to Catch Tony's Magic

By Anne Hillerman
Harper, 336 pp.
* *

We all have our literary equivalents of Twinkies—stuff we consume lustily though we know they are chockful of artificial ingredients that are not intellectually healthy. One of mine was Tony Hillerman, whose Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries go down easily and, on occasion, manage to impart fascinations about Navajo culture. Plus, if you’ve spent any time in New Mexico, backdrops start firing in the brain like your own personal slide show.

Tony Hillerman died in 2008, and the franchise went dormant until his daughter Anne revived it in 2013 with Spider’s Daughter. In it, Jim Chee takes a bullet to the brain and nearly dies. He’s still recouping in Rock with Wings; he can’t speak, but his mind is becoming sharper and he has started to use a computer. These books naturally raise the question of whether Ms. Hillerman is a chip off the old block, or an annoying splinter.  So far, she’s somewhere in between. She has her father’s gift for evoking landscape and she’s faithful and consistent with the characters he created: Leaphorn the methodical, deductive sage and Chee more sensitive and intuitive. She also fleshed out Bernadette Manuelito, Chee’s wife and Leaphorn’s former protégé, whose police skills are a composite of the two leads. What’s missing, though, is Tony’s appreciation for mystery and his command of Navajo beliefs. Both of these are waived across Rock with Wings, but neither penetrates deeply. Ms. Hillerman also scores on the  perfunctory end of the plotting scale.

  The book unfolds with a weird encounter—a routine traffic stop in which Manuelito is offered a sizable bribe to overlook it. It becomes more puzzling when all the driver is hauling are boxes of dirt. Bizarrely, there is heat from the FBI for tribal police to butt out and turn matters over to them. Meanwhile, Jim Chee is invited to help a relative get a tour business off the ground and sees it as a good opportunity to divert Bernie’s suspicions and have a delayed mini-honeymoon in the Monument Valley. Of course, things go wrong—Bernie has to return home almost immediately to care for her elderly mother and Chee gets loaned to the Monument Valley tribal police to help deal with problems related to a Hollywood crew filming a zombie movie on Navajo land. Toss in a few violent deaths, some troubled teens, elderly German tourists, endangered plants, faulty technology, a burned car, a solar company, references to John Ford films, passing references to Navajo legends, vintage fancy goods, isolated hogans, and what do you get?  Well… a big mess, really.

It’s the kind of book one might toss aside were it not that we know and like its central characters so well. I didn’t anticipate the book’s resolution, but that has less to do with my deductive powers than with Ms. Hillerman’s deus ex machina way of extracting herself from all the obvious red herrings she threw into the stew pot. I didn’t dislike this book, but I sure was aware that I was consuming Twinkies. Fair enough—no one ever picked up the old man’s books in the mistaken impression that he or she was reading Proust. Still, what I’ve read of Anne Hillerman thus far invokes more guilt than pleasure. I’ll give her one more chance. Warning has been served. --Rob Weir  

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