- - Thursday, August 20, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ROCK WITH WINGS

By Anne Hillerman

Harper. $27.99, 322 pages

 

Location (location, location) isn’t important only in real estate. Try thinking about John D. MacDonald without the Florida Keys, Jim Harrison without the UP (Upper Peninsula) or George Pelecanos without Washington, D.C. In this case, the setting is the Navajo Nation in the American Southwest, the vast tribal lands of the Four Corners area (where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet). That’s a strong plus for a novel, but there’s more: The author’s name is Hillerman, which makes “Rock With Wings” sound like a sure winner. But, wait a minute — this Hillerman’s first name is Anne, not Tony.

In the 18 novels (out of a total of 29 books) he set in this same geographical location, the late Tony Hillerman gave his tribe of devoted fans the magical land of the Navajo people, replete with physical beauty, spiritual mysteries and often a conflict between ancient ways and modern forensics. He also gave them a pair of unforgettable characters, Navajo Tribal Police officers Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee, who embodied that conflict. Although both men are themselves Navajos, the older man, Leaphorn, insisted on rational thought and careful evidentiary procedure, while Chee, the younger, admits to a fascination with the possibility that in the Navajo Nation, not all things can be explained by reason.

In “Rock With Wings,” written by Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne, the duo becomes a trio with the addition of Chee’s Navajo wife and fellow officer, Bernadette (“Bernie”) Manuelito, the same main characters Ms. Hillerman featured in her debut novel “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” which came out last October to generally positive reviews. In this book, she picks up where she left off, not in terms of the story but with the same cast and setting, and a similarly knotty plot.

Leaphorn and Chee, who last appeared in 2009 in Hillerman pere’s “A Thief of Time,” were the focus of the narrative, but in this case it’s Officer Manuelito who tells the tale, and it’s a good change because it enables the author to present what might be called the woman cop’s point of view. It also shows what kind of life a female has in such a traditionally male-dominated job.

As the book opens, Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito are embarking on a short working vacation to the magnificent Monument Valley area where Jim has promised to help his cousin Paul start a photo-tour business. But these best-laid plans go awry as soon as they arrive: Manuelito gets a call from her ailing and elderly mother that Manuelito’s younger, troubled sister has disappeared. Officer Bernie Manuelito loyally if begrudgingly returns home — to discover that her sister Darlene “disappeared” into a jail cell after becoming drunk and disorderly — and Officer Jim Chee stays on to help the Monument Valley Navajo police deal with the presence of a movie crew that is shooting a picture in the same surroundings made so memorable by John Ford and John Wayne in “Stagecoach.”

Manuelito pulls over a very nervous motorist whose trunk reveals two huge boxes of dirt, and her husband, sent to find a girl gone missing from the movie-making crew, stumbles on what appears to be a traditional Indian grave. Thus intertwined, the plots thicken from that point forward. Additional questions include: Will Officer Manuelito win the emotional tug-of-war with her headstrong younger sister; will their mother’s health improve; and will Jim and Bernie be able to carve out the time necessary to make a brand new marriage work despite the unintended separation.

All of this is set against a very well-described background of natural beauty, which seems to mock the petty concerns of mere mortals.

A staple of many thrillers is that they introduce the reader to a previously unknown world, which Anne Hillerman most certainly does. The speech patterns employed by the Navajo characters, especially when the conversation is between people of different ages, sound authentic rather than imitative. It also rings true when she writes, “Chee waited for what Bahe would say next. In the Navajo tradition, if something was important you mentioned it four times.” And, on the day Manuelito is to give a talk to a Rotary Club luncheon, she fixes her hair in the “traditional ‘tsiiyeel,’ the Navajo bun.”

By choosing to pick up her father’s characters where he’d dropped them, Anne Hillerman, also a former journalist, more than invites comparisons with his fiction. On a basis of writing skill, to paraphrase a famous political put-down, she’s no Tony Hillerman. There are instances where it appears both author and editor must have fallen asleep, because words and phrases are repeated in too-close proximity, and where she telegraphs a number of emotional punches, such as when she writes that Jim Chee, thinking of his wife, “couldn’t wait to see her again.” Also, the plot has more twist than a lanyard.

However, not only does Anne Hillerman more than hold her own on her father’s turf, she provides touches and insights not seen in his male-dominated world. And, like her famous father before her, she ably transports the reader to the marvelous, mystical, and many-hued landscape of the Navajo Nation.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.


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