HarperTorch, 2004, 368 pages
In 1956, an airplane crash left the remains of 172 passengers scattered among the majestic cliffs of the Grand Canyon - including an arm attached to a briefcase containing a fortune in gems. Half a century later, one of the missing diamonds has reappeared... and the wolves are on the scent.
Former Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is coming out of retirement to help exonerate a slow, simple kid accused of robbing a trade post. Billy Tuve claims he received the diamond he tried to pawn from a mysterious old man in the canyon, and his story has attracted the dangerous attention of strangers to the Navajo lands - one more interested in a severed limb than the fortune it was attached to; another willing to murder to keep lost secrets hidden. But nature herself may prove the deadliest adversary, as Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee follow a puzzle - and a killer - down into the dark realm of Skeleton Man.
The Edgar Law: As the number of books in a mystery series grows, the ratio in each book of mystery to character updates approaches 0.
This is the seventeenth book in Tony Hillerman's long-running series about Navajo police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Chee, a traditionalist counterpart to the unsuperstitious Leaphorn, first appeared in the fourth book in the series, People of Darkness, and gradually took over as the main character. Eventually, Leaphorn retired from the Tribal Police and Hillerman used increasingly contrived reasons to get him involved with Chee's latest investigation.
Officer Bernadette Manuelito, destined to become Chee's fiancee, first appeared in the fifteenth book, The Wailing Wind, which incidentally is the last book in the series that I thought was any good.
So, here we are at book seventeen (Hillerman only wrote one more before he died in 2008), and the story in Skeleton Man is basically a rehash of everything Hillerman has done before. It's a fifty-year-old cold case involving an airplane and a lost suitcase full of diamonds. For improbable reasons, a rich white lawyer needs to send a hired gun to the Navajo Nation to make sure that someone looking for the remains of the plane crash (now, after fifty years) doesn't find it, and this brings the villains into conflict with Chee and Manuelito. Leaphorn is involved via a very tenuous connection, and the entire book is framed as a story Leaphorn is telling after the fact.
Skeleton Man is really a short story padded out to novel length. There isn't enough substance in it to make a satisfying novel, and much of it is taken up with recurring characters updating us on their lives, and reminders every chapter that Joe Leaphorn is the "Legendary Leaphorn."
Hillerman could write great mysteries, and even in this lukewarm phoning-it-in effort, his mastery of the craft is evident. But it's so obvious that he wasn't really trying. This is particularly evident in the ending.
What made the earlier Leaphorn/Chee mysteries great was that Hillerman provided captivating and completely authentic descriptions of the Navajo nation and weaved Navajo culture into the plots as well as the characters. There is little of that here. This book is for fans who want to know how things are going with Jim and Bernie.
Verdict: Reading Skeleton Man is kind of like checking in to visit old friends who've become banal and boring. You still want to see them every now and then, but you miss the good times. I would urge anyone to read Tony Hillerman's Navajo mysteries - but start with the early ones. The later ones reach a point where you'd only read them if you are already a fan.
Also by Tony Hillerman: My review of The Sinister Pig.
My complete list of book reviews.