Told from multiple points of view, this story does take awhile to get into as there doesn’t seem to be much of a mystery in the first few pages. And yet, that’s what makes the mystery that much more mysterious once it picks up. Unfortunately, the main character, Lt. Joe Leaphorn, does not feature in this story as much as one would think, and therefore, we don’t get to know much about him. That said, Leaphorn is still a great detective. He knows his people and he knows the best thing he can do is to listen to what they have to say, because in listening, he is able to hear clues in what is said, how it is said, and even in what is not said. Leaphorn, as well as other recurring characters, do develop further throughout the eighteen book series.
Speaking of characters, the Southwest landscape plays such an integral part in this novel, it’s almost as if it’s a character in and of itself. Given Navajo names such as Sacred Mountain of Blue Flint Woman and Many Ruins Canyon, the place names tell a story all on their own. Mythology and symbolism permeate the story right from the beginning, which may take a little getting used to for some readers, but is also a great way to immerse the reader into the true Navajo culture.
Halfway through the novel, the mystery turns into a thriller/suspense, when we spend more time with Dr. McKee running for his life. This is when the story really picks up and becomes a quick read to the end. Both the mystery and suspense elements are solid, ensuring the reader won’t be able to put the book down once completely immersed. Plus, while the book was written, and set, nearly fifty years ago, the story holds up really well and doesn’t read as dated. Readers will be clamoring for book two as soon as they turn the last page on this one.
Originally published in 1970, this series was groundbreaking in that Hillerman was not Navajo himself, but clearly researched his subject and wrote about The People in a modern setting with respect, and as realistically as possible without dwelling on any negative aspects. This series was popular when it first came out, and continues to be so to this day. In fact, Hillerman has inspired other authors to write their own mysteries involving Native American people.
It is important to note that while author Tony Hillerman passed away in 2008, his daughter, Anne Hillerman, has continued the series with SPIDER WOMAN’S DAUGHTER and ROCK WITH WINGS.