Harper, 2006, 288 pages
Since his retirement from the Navajo Tribal Police, Joe Leaphorn has occasionally been enticed to return to work by former colleagues who seek his help when they need to solve a particularly puzzling crime. They ask because Leaphorn, aided by officers Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito, always delivers.
But this time the problem is with an old case of Joe's--his "last case," unsolved, is one that continues to haunt him. And with Chee and Bernie just back from their honeymoon, Leaphorn is pretty much on his own.
The original case involved a priceless, one-of-a-kind Navajo rug supposedly destroyed in a fire. Suddenly, what looks like the same rug turns up in a magazine spread. And the man who brings the photo to Leaphorn's attention has gone missing. Leaphorn must pick up the threads of a crime he'd thought impossible to untangle. Not only has the passage of time obscured the details, but it also appears that there's a murderer still on the loose.
My reviews of the last two Tony Hillerman books haven't been very positive, so I approached the final book he wrote before he died with sadness and some trepidation. The Navajo Mysteries starring Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee have been among my favorite book series for over two decades now. But not many authors have the energy to keep putting out their best work after eighteen books in a series, and the last few felt like Hillerman was just going through the motions.
Why you should read Tony Hillerman
The first time I read a Tony Hillerman novel, it was in an anthropology course in college. The professor assigned The Blessing Way because like most American anthropologists he had a thing for the Navajo (an old Navajo joke is that a Navajo family consists of a grandmother, her daughters' families, and an anthropologist), and The Blessing Way not only included a lot of information about the Navajo, but made Navajo traditions an essential part of the plot: Leaphorn's ability to solve the central murder mystery in the book revolved around his ability to interpret Navajo beliefs and behavior.
The Blessing Way introduced Joe Leaphorn, a skeptical, college-educated Navajo who is respectful of his roots, but who has little patience for superstition. "I believe in people who believe in witches," he says, pointing out that it's not necessarily the existence of Navajo witches with supernatural powers that is a problem, but people who believe that someone might be a witch. Witches and chindi and other Navajo supernatural beliefs often play a part in the books, but the plots remain firmly grounded in reality.
In the fourth book in the series, People of Darkness, Hillerman introduced a new character as a counterpoint to Leaphorn: Officer Jim Chee, a more traditional Navajo studying to become a medicine man. Leaphorn and Chee will enjoy friendship and friction over the next fourteen books, as Leaphorn thinks little of Chee's efforts to reconcile the ways of Navajo healing with the demands of the white man's law enforcement, but eventually grows to respect him.
Henceforth every book in the series will include both Leaphorn and Chee, though usually one or the other occupies the spotlight while the other may be little more than someone providing a few clues over the phone. Lieutenant Leaphorn retires in book twelve, and thereafter is referred to constantly as "the legendary Leaphorn," but continues getting involved in cases on one pretext or another (usually some old case dug up by somebody new coming along and stirring up trouble). Meanwhile, Chee goes through a series of romantic mishaps as the series progresses, first dating a white teacher named Mary Landon and later a Navajo attorney working for the prosecutor's office named Janet Pete. Neither of them work out: they both want Chee to become something he's not and stop being what he is, a Tribal cop and a shaman in training.
In book thirteen, The First Eagle, we meet Officer Bernadette Manuelito, and we can pretty much tell at this point who Hillerman has decided upon as Jim Chee's one true love, even if it takes five more books for them to finally get married.
This was part of the problem. Most mystery series accumulate history and supporting characters and a need to keep recapping everything as the series gets longer. Pretty soon you're reading as much about the characters' personal lives as you are about the latest murder to be solved. It's nice for the characters to become real people with lives outside of solving murders, but Hillerman's later books were quite mediocre as mysteries, and while the Southwestern feel was always present, there wasn't much of the old Navajo magic in most of them; instead we got a lot of crimes committed by Washington politicians, diamond thieves, and former CIA operatives, white men coming to the Reservation to cause trouble. Leaphorn and Chee were at their best when they were trying to navigate the demands of Navajo culture while pursuing their vocational obligations. Navajo ways often conflicted with the law's view of justice, creating interesting dilemmas for both of them. When the crimes were all about white people business, it was considerably less interesting, just a couple of detectives who happened to be Indians.
But, those early books were rich and splendid, and even the later books still had descriptions that would transport you to Tuba City, Window Rock, Shiprock, and the Four Corners, and the vast empty spaces beneath the sky and the long dirt roads stretching to the horizon without a soul in sight.
Tony Hillerman was not a Native American himself. A decorated World War II vet, former journalist, and a lifelong resident of the Southwest, he was highly regarded by the Navajo whom he wrote about; he was named a Special Friend of the Dineh by the Navajo Tribe. He wrote about real places but often obscured their locations, and made sure he was always writing respectfully about tribal customs and people.
He passed away in 2008, at the age of 83. He was an award-winning mystery writer and former president of the MWA, and he'd written other books, but he was most famous for the eighteen Leaphorn/Chee novels. One of his books, The Dark Wind, appeared in theaters, while three — A Thief of Time, Skinwalkers, and Coyote Waits — were made into TV movies for PBS Mystery.
The Shape Shifter
Book 16, The Sinister Pig, was a sub-mediocre, phoning-it-in effort. Book 17, Skeleton Man, was not terrible, but it was basically a short story padded out to novel length.
Book 18, The Shape Shifter, was better than either of the previous two, though not as good as any of Hillerman's earlier books. There was a bit more of the Navajo cultural element than we had seen lately, shoehorned into allegorical tales that are compared to the predicament of a Hmong refugee who is one of the main secondary characters. The main plot, unfortunately, is derivative of many of Hillerman's earlier plots, with an old cold case with no immediate apparent relevance dragging Leaphorn out of retirement and a one-dimensional amoral white guy being the source of all the trouble. The involvement of Chee and Manuelito is forced and incidental, and the climax is a long conversation in which the villain spills the beans before a predictable "twist."
It's not a bad book, and I was relieved that it was not a terrible book. But it's not a great book. It's a comfort read. It's for completists who want to see how Hillerman would finish his series.
I wouldn't recommend that anyone go pick up The Shape Shifter to read independently of the other Leaphorn/Chee books; if you want to try out Hillerman, don't start here, start much earlier in the series.
But I do recommend the series. It's fine reading, especially if you like the Southwest, and you want to learn a bit about the Navajo along with your light fiction.
Have you read any of Hillerman's Navajo Mysteries?
Verdict: Tony Hillerman's last novel was not his best, but it's a satisfying conclusion to a series that went on for almost 40 years. The Navajo Mysteries will always be one of my favorite series, and Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are like old friends to me. This review was really a review of the entire series, because The Shape Shifter is at best an average entry, but I hope it will entice you to at least try some of Hillerman's earlier books.
Also by Tony Hillerman: My reviews of The Sinister Pig and Skeleton Man.
My complete list of book reviews.