Wed 29 Feb 2012
What more painless way is there to learn about another culture than to read Tony Hllierman’s Navajo series. I suggest you start with the first book in the Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn series, The Blessing Way (1970).
This was Hillerman’s first mystery, though it’s not clear whether when he wrote it he intended it to be the first of a series. It is largely a thriller, with Leaphorn off stage during much of the action, about a pair of anthropologists being stalked in the desert and mountains of the Navajo Reservation in Northeast Arizona and Northwest New Mexico. Its pluses are its authenticity about Navajo ways and an exciting climax.
Before writing another Leaphorn book, Hillerman wrote a non-series mystery, The Fly on the Wall (1971), which is even better than the Navajo books I’ve read. Written a couple of years before Watergate, he made use of his own newspaper background to tell how an investigative reporter tries to solve a mystery involving murder and corruption in a Midwestern state capitol. It barely lost out to Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal for that year’s Edgar.
Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) deservedly did win an Edgar. While having Leaphorn solve three brutal murders, Hillerman gives us many insights into the Navajos and their neighboring tribe, the Zuñis, especially the rite of the Shalako dancers, the culmination of their ceremonial year.
Again, the ending is suspenseful, but along the way there is more real detection, with Leaphorn making deductions from physical clues like a Native-Born Sherlock Holmes.
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 1989.