Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Sinister Pig, by Tony Hillerman

One-line summary: Leaphorn and Chee are back and getting long in the tooth, like this series, in a non-thrilling non-mystery involving drug smuggling and theft of oil royalties from Indian lands.

HarperCollins, 2003, 240 pages

The victim, well dressed but stripped of identification, is found at the edge of the vast Jicarilla Apache natural gas field just inside the jurisdiction of the Navajo Tribal Police, facing Sergeant Jim Chee with a complex puzzle.

Why did the Washington office of the FBI snatch custody of this case from its local agents and call it a hunting accident? On a level nearer to Chee's heart, did the photographs Bernie Manuelito took on an exotic game ranch near the Mexican border reveal something connected with this crime?

It is, finally, "Legendary Lieutenant" Joe Leap-horn, now retired, who connects the lines on a dusty old map to find the answers -- and the Sinister Pig -- among the great scimitar-horned oryx grazing on the historic old Tuttle Ranch.

I read The Blessing Way, Tony Hillerman's first Navajo mystery, about twenty-five years ago, and I've been a Tony Hillerman fan ever since. I read every book in the series up to #15, The Wailing Wind, but I'd sort of left off after that. I believe I read at one point that Hillerman had intended The Wailing Wind to be his last Navajo mystery -- after fifteen books, like a lot of authors, he was kind of tired of writing the same characters and similar plots over and over. But like a lot of authors, either the muse still poked him or popular demand and the lure of more money did -- Hillerman passed away in 2008, but not before writing three more books in the series.

So, I've decided it's time to finish them off. The Sinister Pig is #16, the third-from-the-last book in the series.

An introduction to Tony Hillerman and Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee

If you're unfamiliar with Hillerman's Navajo mysteries, they are set in the Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation, and star Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, both officers of the Navajo Tribal Police. (The first few books feature Leaphorn only; Chee first appears in #4, People of Darkness.) Hillerman is often credited with starting the boom in Indian/Southwest mysteries, followed by authors such as Nevada Barr and J.A. Jance. Hillerman was not an Indian himself, and was always conscious of the fact that he was writing as an outsider about a culture that he knew well but was not really a part of. The Navajo Tribal Council honored him with their 'Special Friend of the Dineh' award. He always wrote respectfully about the Dineh, and was also known to rearrange geography in his books to prevent would-be tourists from trying to visit the places he wrote about. (Not an unreasonable precaution at all, considering that the Navajo Tribal Police headquarters has been known to get visitors dropping in to ask if they could meet Officers Leaphorn or Chee.)

Joe Leaphorn is what one might call a "lapsed" Navajo in terms of his beliefs. His wife was (she passed away a few books back) a very traditional Navajo, but while Leaphorn respects the traditions of his people, he has little patience for superstition, and when it comes to Navajo witches: "I believe in people who believe in witches."

Jim Chee enters the series as a greenhorn cop who is also studying to be a medicine man. He's modern, college-educated, but he still believes deeply in the old ways. This tension between his calling and his life experience, and the tension between himself and the skeptical Leaphorn, is one of the things that plays out throughout the series.

A good overview of the series can be found here. The quality of the books has been up and down over the years, like any long-running series, but I never thought Hillerman turned in a real stinker. However, I did notice in the last few books that it was starting to develop Cozy Syndrome. Jim Chee is not exactly turning into Jessica Fletcher (though he does have a lot of Cat Lady traits), but it seems that every mystery series has a tendency to start being more about the personal lives of the main characters than about the crimes. Returning fans get a "been there, done that" attitude towards dead bodies found on the Rez and disappearing planes and smuggled drugs -- what they really want to know is whether Chee is finally going to hook up with that Navajo cutie Bernadette Manuelito.

The Sinister Pig is looking a little cozy

Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito have been playing that awkward "Does s/he really like me?" game since she first appeared in #13, The First Eagle, and while fans will be happy to see that Chee finally puts on his big boy pants and gets the girl (yeah, that's kind of a spoiler, but not much of one), it really demonstrates what I think is wrong with a lot of mystery series. They start out with vivid characters, colorful settings, and/or an intriguing premise, but as the series goes on and the author feels obliged to detail more of the characters' lives, and also goes through most of the original plot ideas you can spin out of the premise in the first few books, we wind up with a series that becomes more of a melodrama with an occasional dead body to spice things up.

Hillerman doesn't quite get to that point -- the plot is a bonafide crime and there is bonafide action and violence -- but the cameos by old friends like Joe Leaphorn and Cowboy Dashee, and Chee's long-awaited declaration, are the real reasons for this book being written. A fairly routine plot involving a billionaire using oil and natural gas pipelines to smuggle drugs from Mexico into the U.S. serves as the pretext to wrap a story around this fan service.

I'm probably being a little harsh; The Sinister Pig is not a bad book, but it's not really a good one either. It's just nothing special, certainly nothing that a new reader would read and think "Wow! I want to read more by Tony Hillerman!"

My disappointment stems from the earlier books in which Southwest vistas were brought to life with all the vast empty majesty of the Four Corners region, and in which Hillerman's delicate portrayal of Indian culture was usually critical to the story. Many times, the crimes are particular to this part of the country, or the understanding of Navajo customs and motivations which Leaphorn and Chee bring to their investigative work is necessary to solve them.

The Sinister Pig isn't a "Navajo mystery"; it's just a bad guy getting up to evildoing on Indian lands, and he and his cronies are from Washington. It's not even a mystery, since we're told right from the beginning who did what and why; I don't even know why Hillerman used this narrative device of alternating between the bad guys' POV and the protagonists'. It's not something he ever did in previous novels that I can recall, and it leaves the only suspense in the story being how and when the good guys will put together everything the reader already knows. And lastly, the copious intervention of author fiat made even the climax fall flat. Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito are mostly just there (with Joe Leaphorn being a distant presence who doesn't do much but provide clues over the phone), and they're put there so they can resolve their own personal drama.

Do I recommend this book? Not if you haven't read the previous books in the series. Believe me, the earlier books are much better, and do have some mysteries in them to keep the reader guessing. I feel that The Sinister Pig is where Hillerman really started phoning it in.

Verdict: This is not the best place to start in the series; it's too self-referential and features too many characters whom readers are expected to already be familiar with. This is a book written to satisfy existing fans, not bring in new ones. I highly recommend Hillerman to any fan of mysteries, especially if you have an interest in the Southwest or Navajo culture, but start with the earlier books; The Sinister Pig is only for completists.
Tags: books, mystery, reviews, tony hillerman

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