Wednesday, March 12, 2003

The Wailing Wind - Tony Hillerman

I like a good mystery.

I started reading Sherlock Holmes in high school, thrilled with the Hound of the Baskervilles, and then moved onto more hard-boiled characters such as the Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels and others. After reading Gorky Park (centered on a grisly murder in a Moscow park, back in the good old, bad old USSR-days), I developed a taste for mysteries with unique settings. Someone pointed me at Tony Hillerman and I have remained a faithful reader ever since.

Tony Hillerman's books are set on the Navajo Reservation of the American south-west, the Four Corners (where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet). Blending the dusty beauty of the extraordinary landscape with the voice of the Dinah, the Navajo, Hillerman has created a unique and fascinating setting and ethos for his stories.

The Wailing Wind finds his two staple characters, the now retired, legendary lieutenant of the Navajo Tribal Police (who patrol an area in excess of 27,000 sq. miles), Joe Leaphorn, and the younger, slightly more muddled, Navajo traditionalist Sergeant Jim Chee, investigating the labyrinthine connections between an abandoned pick-up truck with dead body, a long-lost gold mine, a two-year old shooting, and La Llorana, the Wailing Women of the south-west.

Hillerman weaves modern culture with mythic lore, seamlessly making the leap from the intricate Navajo belief system to 21st century police work, building a very believable and reasonably involved mystery. The two overwhelming elements found in all of Hillerman's 15 novels are his unabashed appreciation for the land and his ability to evoke it so strongly that it literally represents another ongoing character in the story, and his ability to bring the reader into the belief system of the Navajo, replete with the religious ceremonies, cultural observances, and the dreaded presence of evil, often manifested as skinwalkers or Navajo witches. In particular he does an excellent job developing the characters and reflecting the directions and thinking that leads them to solve their particular puzzles in their own particular ways, Leaphorn with logic and pattern, Chee with the intuition and understanding that his training as a Navajo hataalii (shamen or healer) has developed.

The Wailing Woman is not the best of Hillerman's work. I would rank it as a middle-of-the-pack read, but as Hillerman is damned fine spinner of yarns, I would still place it head and shoulders above much of the rest of the detective fiction littering the store shelves. For fans of the series, it is like visiting an old friend.

Interested in learning more about the Navajo? Visit Explore the Navajo Nation. You can also drop by Tony Hillerman's website here for some interesting background on the books.

Find out about Navajo sand painting (and here as well), traditional Navajo rugs, and legendary figures such as Coyote and the Flint Boys.

You can check out some of the wonderous scenery of the sacred land of the Navajo at Flight Over Four Corners , a National Geographic website.

P.S. The Comments system is now active, so if anyone has any additional links, comments, books suggestions or feedback, please feel free to click below.

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