Today’s book is A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman.

Many of you may be familiar with Hillerman’s novels, but if you are not I will give you a bit of background. Hillerman was a best-selling mystery writer who set many of his most famous mysteries among the Navajo (Dine) people. Hillerman was widely praised over the years for the way that he (a white man) was able to depict the world of the Dine and life on and off the reservation. Hillerman’s work is great mystery writing, but really it is a fantastic glimpse into Dine life.

So A Thief of Time begins with the disappearance of an anthropologist who was studying Anasazi (the ancient cliff dwellers of the Southwest whose culture remains mysterious for anthropologists and historians) pot shards. Her disappearance eventually is linked the murders of three people who, in some way or another, were involved in her search for pottery at different sites on the reservation. Drawn into the investigation because of its complexity is Lt. Joe Leaphorn who is considering retirement after the sudden death of his wife, and the young tribal policeman Jim Chee.

Together Leaphorn and Chee manage to link the deaths through painstaking  police work that takes them all over the (enormous) reservation– and they set out to try to find out what happened to the anthropologist. Along the way they encounter a motley cast of people– a Dine lawyer who Chee grows fond of, a Dine Christian evangelist who deals in pots, pot collectors, a rogue anthropologist and a white rancher. As the two tribal policeman keep looking the plot grows more and more complicated, and concludes with a clever surprise ending that I did not see coming. (I had figured out who had done all the killing, but there is quite a twist at the end that impressed me.)

But the plot is not really the reason to read the novel– the reason is the way Hillerman depicts Dine culture and the landscape. The tiny, but essential details in describing the Anasazi ruins, the remote hogans, and the trailer (complete with rain barrels and tires on top) of Officer Chee. If you have ever been up to the Four Corners area, you realize that Hillerman’s descriptions of the rutted, unpaved roads and the desolate canyons are spot on. But it is not just the descriptions that are correct, but also Hillerman’s understanding of Dine culture– like how traditionalists don’t like the white man’s custom of the handshake (usually they will offer only the briefest of one), or how they tend to nickname people by their physical characteristics, or how silence, for them is a respectful way to allow a speaker to finish a story,  whereas asking questions is considered uncouth. Hillerman also had an impressive grasp on the varieties of religions that the Dine adhere too– those who are on the Jesus Road, the Peyote Way, the Blessing Way, witchcraft and those who just sort of ignore it all.  The books are rich in understanding of the Dine way of life, and it is these little cultural nuances and understandings that lead Leaphorn and Chee to solve the mystery.

Hillerman’s books are richer than your average mystery novel and they are written well and are suspenseful enough to keep you hooked. I tend to read them whenever I travel– taking a little piece of the Southwest with me wherever I go. When I was a child my parents took me up to see the Dine and a Dine guide took us through Canyon de Chelley to see the Anasazi ruins and to be shown (and told the story) of the Long Walk. The majesty of the canyons in that area is unparalleled, and when I saw a thunderstorm move through Monument Valley as we camped on a mesa, I understood why it was known as the Valley of the Gods. It is a beautiful place, inflected with an ancient culture that today, still hangs on, even in the face of change and staggering difficulty. Hillerman portrays all of this deftly, and while I have enjoyed many of his books in the past, A Thief of Time proved to be fresh and thoughtful

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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