05 July 2007

Hillerman successors

For the past 30 years, Tony Hillerman has been writing mysteries set in Navajo country at the rate of one every 2 or 3 years. To me it seems like he invented a popular genre featuring Native Americans as crime solvers. Other people have followed his example. Margaret Coel is the one I'm most familiar with.

Hillerman is 82 years old. His most recent book, The Shape Shifter, could well be his last. Becoming his successor as a "mystery writer of the Navajo" would be a big deal. Even being a Hillerman imitator could be something to brag about.

At the Northfield library recently, I saw a couple paperbacks in the mystery section by Aimée and David Thurlo. I picked up Red Mesa and brought it home. Like Hillerman's mysteries, this one is set in Dinétah (the Navajo reservation) and tells stories around a Navajo police officer.

The Thurlos, like Hillerman, are knowledgeable outsiders in Dinétah. They've created a good mystery story. But their telling of the story is not up to Hillerman standards. Special Investigator Ella Clah, headquarted at the Shiprock station of the Navajo police, is a single mother who had significant experiences in the Anglo world before returning home. It's probably not a fair comparison based on a single book, but Ella Clah is not as compelling a character to me as either Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee.

The majesty of desert and mesa that Hillerman writes about with such passion is missing from this book completely. The Thurlos' story telling is sporadic: sometimes moving too slowly for me; other times jumping ahead leaving gaps in my understanding.

That characteristic shows up in the writing in other ways. Characters sometimes offer a lot more explanation than they would in a real conversation and at other times they seem to leave out important details. I don't need to be told, for instance, that as a suspended police officer drives off from home that her white pick-up only gets used for personal trips.

On the other hand, it would be nice to know where that police officer, who was on the job all day, heard the gossip about her family that is central to her internal dialogue at the end of the day.

In other words, this was a dissatisfying book for me. I was hoping to visit Hillerman-land with huge skies, stark beauty, stormy male rains, and reflective attempts to harmonize the old and the new in the course of resolving a mysterious and dangerous set of circumstances.

What I read in Red Mesa was a patchwork story about politics, clan rivalries, irrational, murderous revenge, and magic intuition full of unexplained developments, sinister unidentified forces, and hard to accept rapidly-changing loyalties. In some ways that might be more realistic than Hillerman's romantic vision. But the realism isn't matched by the narrative.

Next time I go to the library, I won't pick up another of the Thurlo's novels.

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