2004; 336 pages. Book #17 (out of 18) in the “Leaphorn and Chee” series. New Author? : No. Genre : Crime Mystery; Native American Fiction. Overall Rating : 7*/10.
Billy Tuve has come unstuck in time. No, he doesn’t pop in up and down his life line, like Billy Pilgrim did. But time itself has very little meaning to Billy. “A while ago” can mean two hours or ten years to him.
Billy might consider sharpening those chronology skills though, since he’s just become the prime suspect in a cold case from a couple years ago, where a trading post owner was reportedly killed and the owner’s wife claimed a valuable white diamond was stolen from the premises. It was estimated to be worth $20,000 dollars or more.
Billy's been caught trying to pawn off just such a diamond for a paltry $20. Coincidence? Former Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn has his doubts.
Billy’s alibi is even more dubious. He claims a strange old Indian man, a shaman, appeared on a path he was walking one night, and offered Billy the diamond in exchange for his shovel. Billy may be unstuck in time, but he’s no fool. It was obvious even to him that the proffered “diamond” had to be a fake. Still, even a zircon is worth more than a shovel.
But maybe that old Indian was really Skeleton Man is disguise. Testing Billy in some sort of way. Nah, that’s impossible.
Or is it?
What’s To Like...
Despite the titular reference to a Native American deity, the backdrop of Skeleton Man actually stems from a real event – the 1956 mid-air crash of two commercial airplanes over the Grand Canyon, with all 128 lives lost. Tony Hillerman discusses this in a kewl Author’s Note at the front of the book, so this isn’t a spoiler.
This isn’t really a Murder-Mystery, which is a bit odd for a Leaphorn-Chee tale, and the cold-case robbery mentioned above never gets solved, which I also found unusual. The book starts out weird; Chapter One is more or less an epilogue, which introduces the reader to a whole slew of new characters in slam-bang fashion. To boot, the plotline isn’t always chronological; occasionally it doubles back upon itself. But that’s okay, it keeps the reader on his/her toes.
There were enough plot twists to keep my attention. Just because a character is a “white-hat” doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of unprovoked assault. And while we know we can safely assume that Skeleton Man isn’t a divine visitation, the reader, along with Chee and Leaphorn, still has to come up with an explanation of his alleged appearance.
Skeleton Man was an incredibly fast read for me, so if you have a book report due tomorrow, this book’s your saving grace. I liked the “Waiting For Godot” reference (see excerpt, below); it brought back memories of debating with my college English Lit professor whether reading it was a complete waste of my time. I have since changed my viewpoint on this. I also learned what a “skip tracer” is, a term that I’d never heard of before, but which has a straightforward meaning.
The real joy of any Tony Hillerman story is the insight that one gains into Native American culture. The biggest piece of enlightenment I gained here was that it’s not just us white folks that are excluded from a given tribe’s sacred rituals and lore. If you’re a Hopi in among Navajos, you’ll be similarly excluded. And even if you’re all Navajos, but you come from a different clan, you will be shut out of certain ceremonies. This is the stuff I read Ton Hillerman for.
“Bernie, you wait here. If Tuve shows up, keep him here until Cowboy and I get back.”
“Sergeant Chee,” Bernie said, loud enough to be heard over the roar of the river and the clamor of the mating-season frogs, and maybe even a little louder than that. “I want to remind you that I am no longer Officer B. Manuelito of your Navajo Tribal Police squad. I am a private regular citizen.”
“Sorry,” Chee said, sounding suitably repentant. “I just thought-“
“Okay. I’ll stay here,” Bernie said. Dashee was grinning at her. (pg. 222)
The big blond man had his back turned toward her now, looking the other way, apparently studying the higher reaches of the Salt Trail. Waiting for Tuve, she guessed. And that thought reminded her of Waiting for Godot and the time they had wasted in her Literature 411 class discussing whether Godot would ever arrive, and what difference it would make if he did. And now wasn’t she sort of a perfect match for Beckett’s ridiculous characters? (pg. 236)
“Billy’s always been very vague about chronology. Ever since that horse fell on him.” (pg. 138 )
Skeleton Man has some flaws. The first 2/3 of the book drags in places, and it takes Leaphorn and Chee a mind-numbingly long time to check out the Skeleton Man angle to Billy’s story. The excitement picks up strikingly in the last third of the book, though, which is a nice reward for those readers who stuck things out.
Still, the ending felt contrived, with not just one, but two deus ex machinas showing up. (Note: yeah, I know that plural is not grammatically correct; if you saw my junior high school Latin grades, you’ll know why I don’t care.) One is a providential character named Mary, the other is more Mother Nature-begotten. While they both move the plotline along, they really telegraph the ending.
Also, the final resolution of the Skeleton Man character was anticlimactic. I think I could’ve come up with a more satisfying way to tie that thread up, and I don’t call myself as writer.
7 Stars. Skeleton Man is still a worthwhile read, especially for the Native American cultural details, and that's the main reason I read Tony Hillerman's books. But I’d be amazed if anyone ever said it was the best offering in the series.