Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Thief of Time - Tony Hillerman

1988; 325 pages. Genre : Murder Mystery. Made into a movie for the PBS series Mystery!. Overall Rating : B-.

   .An anthropologist vanishes among Anasazi ruins. A flatbed trailer and backhoe are stolen. Three murders rock the remote 4-Corners area of the Southwest. Navajo Tribal police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and officer Jim Chee have to find the connection in all this, find the killer(s), and find the missing anthropologist.
What's To Like...
    The list of suspects are all "gray"; none jump out as the obvious bad guys. The solving of the case comes from dogged and determined detective work, not from some too-good-to-be-true stroke of luck.
Hillerman uses real-world settings, usually in the Native American regions in the Southwest. Since I live in Phoenix, this was a close-to-home story. He also focuses heavily on the daily lives of the Native Americans, and their sturggle to maintain their cultural identity. Chee and Leaphorn are a nice study in contrasts. Leaphorn is modernized - Navajo traditions don't bother him, and he doesn't believe in witches. Chee is a "singer" - kind of a junior shaman for his clan. Finding bodies calls for a ritualistic cleansing just as soon as the policework is done.

   .That being said, there is a bit too much emphasis on the cultural issues here. A bit more time might have been spent on smoothing out the storyline. The ending seems contrived and just a bit abrupt. Oh yeah, and we have yet another burnt-out cop here (Leaphorn). Is it too much to ask just once to have the main cop be well-adjusted and happy to go to work each day?

On writing Murder-Mysteries...
    I have a feeling this is a tough genre to write. Somebody gets killed early on. Somebody else spends most of the book searching for clues and trying not to be offed or fired as he/she closes in on solving the case. At the end, there needs to be an exciting climax, with the perpetrators getting their just desserts. There's not much room for variation in this format, and how many thousands of murder-mystery books are there out there?
Adieu, Tony Hillerman...
    Tony Hillerman put his unique stamp on the murder-mystery format by imbuing his books with a heavy dose of Southwestern Native American history & culture. I've read that among the Hopis, Navajos, etc., he is held in high esteem for this. Tony Hillerman passed away last October 26, at the age of 83. While I'm not a big fan of this genre, it seemed appropriate to read one of his books.

No comments: