Between 1970 and 2008, Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) published 19 mystery novels featuring Navajo policeman Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Set mostly in the Navajo lands of northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, these mystery novels introduced Navajo culture and history in a very accessible way to a broad American readership.
I loved the Leaphorn and Chee mysteries. Hillerman not only told a great story; he also communicated his love and respect for a people and culture too many people simply called “Indian.” Through Hillerman, his readers learned the sacredness of Navajo geography, and how a mountain or canyon wasn’t simply a topographical feature; how the Navajo people related to each other as clans and relations, and why; how the art and culture – pottery sand paintings, woven rugs, and more – reflected deeply held spiritual beliefs; and how the old religion was being kept alive.
Five years after his death, Hilleman’s daughter Anne Hillerman talked to his publisher and decided to try to extend the Leaphorn and Chee stories. She had collaborated with her father on non-fiction books related to the mystery series but had never written a mystery herself. Spider Woman’s Daughter (2013) was the first of what is now four books in the continuation of the series.
Joe Leaphorn is now retired from the police and working as a private detective, including doing some insurance work. He still meets some of his former colleagues for a weekly breakfast, and it is there the story starts. Jim Chee is elsewhere, but his wife and fellow Navajo police officer, Bernadette Manuelito, is there. Leaphorn has just taken his leave and walked to his car. Bernie is on her mobile phone talking to Chee, when she sees a hooded figure walk up to Leaphorn and hoot him in the head. She rushes outside but is too late to stop the assailant; instead, she cradles what looks to be a dying Leaphorn. The other officers rush outside to help.
Because she’s a witness and because of the strong personal connection to Leaphorn, Manuelito is put on a week’s leave by her supervisor, although everyone, including her husband, know she won’t be able to be not involved. The investigation takes Chee and Manuelito to Leaphorn’s home, to outlying residences in the area, and eventually to Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The attack at first looks like some kind of revenge by a criminal Leaphorn helped to arrest. But it soon takes on additional dimensions.
The characters as familiar, as is the landscape. Anne Hillerman sticks closely to the “how” of her father’s novels, but she adds her own signature, particularly in that most of the story is told from the viewpoint of Manuelito. She’s also as adept as her father in portraying the clash of the Navajo and Anglo-American cultures, co-existing in the best of times as an uneasy truce.
Spider Woman’s Daughter both extends the legacy of Hillerman’s father and adds the author’s own stamp to the series. That’s not an easy to pull off, but Anne Hillerman did it. And did it well.
Top photograph: Tségháhoodzání, the "Window Rock,” on the Navajo reservation, by Ben FrantzDale via Wikimedia.