Skeleton Man By Tony Hillerman
If you are ever planning a trip to the American Southwest - especially New Mexico – to the area of Shiprock and Gallup and the Navajo lands, the Tony Hillerman mysteries are made to order for holiday reading. I drove through this area a few years ago reading about detective Joe Leaphorn and his staff of Navajo police officers and the people of the region. Just northwest of Gallup you can drive into an area of reserve office buildings and there is the police headquarters with a formation called Window Rock in the distance. This is fiction set in reality - my favourite sort of novel. In Tony Hillerman’s mysteries the landscape is as important as the story. And this is a spectacular landscape - with lots of open spaces in which to find bodies and chase criminals among the rocky outcrops of the canyons and valleys. It is also a bit of a lesson in Navajo culture and the history of the people. There are huge tracts of reservation in this area - hours of driving with very little cultivation or building. It is a barren and beautiful land, and Tony Hillerman describes it perfectly.
In the novel, Skeleton Man, the newest Hillerman in paperback, former Navajo tribal police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn has retired and time moves slowly. He is not unhappy to be asked some questions about an old case. In 1956 a plane crashed in the Grand Canyon. All of the passengers were killed, bodies were strewn for miles, many never found or identified. One passenger carried a briefcase containing a fortune in diamonds - never found. Now a diamond has shown up and the speculation is that there are more to be discovered - if anyone can find out where this one diamond came from. The good guys and the bad guys are all looking for the diamonds, and of course this is a problem. They all want to be first and some of them are utterly ruthless in their quest. There is Navajo superstition - and there is conflict between the native people and the hired killers from away. It is possible, however, that the harsh environment of the Grand Canyon may prevent all of them from finding the diamonds - and perhaps no one will survive at all. It is mystery writing at its finest.
The Shape Shifter is new this winter in hardcover and one of best Tony Hillerman mysteries ever. Joe Leaphorn is beginning to enjoy being retired, but he can’t help but become involved in another case when he discovers an old villain may not be as dead as everyone has thought. When a very unique old Navajo rug appears in a magazine article picturing the home of a wealthy man, Joe remembers when he last saw this rug. This might just be a rug that was supposed to have burnt in a fire, a fire that was also supposed to have caused the death of a very bad man. If the rug is the same one, is it possible that the owner is also the same man? As Leaphorn seeks out some of his old contacts we meet a league of retired men - all with a few aches and pains - but still determined to find the answers to some very old questions.
Woven into the mystery is the Navajo tale of the Shape Shifter and the usual wonderful travels throughout the beautiful landscape of the southwest.
I can’t think of a better place to spend a winter day.