Tue 28 Oct 2008
TONY HILLERMAN – The Ghostway. San Diego: Dennis McMillan, 1984. (Limited edition.) Also published in a regular trade edition by Harper & Row, 1985. Paperback reprint: Avon, 1986. Many other reprint editions, both hardcover and soft.
Hillerman’s second series character, Navajo tribal policeman Jim Chee, is a younger man than Joe Leaphorn and more closely tied to mainstream American society. Because of this, he is perhaps less interesting than Leaphorn, and the Chee books lack the haunting, magical quality of Hillerman’s earlier work. Chee is nonetheless a complex character and the dichotomies he must face within himself are closely intertwined with the plots.
The Ghostway concerns a Los Angeles Navajo who has shot a hoodlum to death and in turn been seriously wounded in a parking lot on the reservation. The FBI is looking for the man — Albert Gorman — for some reason that they do not discuss in detail with the Navajo police, and he is traced to the hogan of a relative, Ashie Begay.
But when Chee, the sheriff’s deputy, and the FBI agents arrive at the hogan, they find no signs of life; the hogan’s smoke hole has been plugged, its doorway boarded over, and a hole cut in one side. To Chee this means someone has died inside and the hogan thought to be possessed by the malicious chindi (ghost) of the dead person has been abandoned.
There are things that bother Chee about the situation: Ashie Begay was a wise old man, accustomed to death, and he loved his home; surely when he saw that Albert Gorman, the wounded man, was close to death, he would have moved him outside, as is the custom.
And when Chee finds Gorman’s body, it has been prepared as the dead are supposed to be, except Begay has neglected to wash the corpse’s hair with yucca suds. Did something interrupt the preparations? And where has Ashie Begay gone?
At the time the case begins, Chee is facing a tough personal decision: Should he join the FBI and leave the reservation with his white lover, Mary Landon? Or should he stay on here where his roots are and risk losing her?
Before he can resolve this, however, Ashie Begay’s granddaughter, Margaret Billy Sosi, disappears from her boarding school, and Chee must track her down. Eventually he finds her in Begay’s contaminated hogan — a place where even he, with his logical policeman’s mind, is loath to step — but she quickly eludes him.
He follows her to Los Angeles, where Navajos of the Turkey Clan, to which she belongs, live in abject poverty. Chee’s investigation takes him back to the reservation again, and into its far reaches where a Ghostway (purifying ceremony) is being performed. And at the ceremony, he must confront not only a killer but also the cultural conflict within himself.
While not as powerful as the Leaphorn novels, The Ghostway ties its thematic matter into the plot in an extremely satisfying way, and Chee is developed to greater depth than before. Any reader will be eager to see how he resolves his conflicts in future novels.
The previous Chee books are People of Darkness (1980) and The Dark Wind (1982).
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.