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Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman
Published by Harper & Row in 1988
I bought this book from Amazon as a used book after reading a review on here and Dooyoo and thought that it would appeal to my husband as he likes detective mysteries and I might also enjoy it as it is set in Navaho country where we had recently visited in the USA.
Tony Hillerman is not an author I have come across before but as I am not a detective crime book reader that is not surprising. I would not discount reading any of his the books if they are set in the same area as I did find the descriptions of the scenery very atmospheric and the Navaho traditions he included in the story made it really interesting for me having been through the area.
Tony Hillerman has apparently written 30 books and about 18 of these are set in the Navaho area. The area they are set is the area we spent some time in while we were in the USA in June 2011.Mr Hillerman was once a president of the Mystery Writers of America and received its Grand Master award. He has also received the Center for the American Indian's Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for the best novel set in the West, and the Navajo Tribe's Special Friend Award.It would seem that he is well qualified to write novels based on mysteries in this area.
This area is a Navajo Nation and as such it has its own laws and ways of doing things and this area is known as the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona Colorado and Utah. I wrote a review about the Four Corner Monument and explained that this was part of the Navaho Nation. The author has obviously spent some time researching the Navaho way of life and this is evident in his work. At the start of this book he points out that some of the things in the book are not quite as the Navaho would do things but he has used literary and artist license and adapted the event to fit in the story.
The style of writing is very easy to read and I was very quickly drawn into the character of Chee who we meet in the first chapter and I felt he was the lead character and the hero. I enjoyed the description of his van and how he had acquired a cat or rather the cat had decided to live with him.
I got a little confused when we then moved to the next character Joe Leaphorn as he gives the impression that Chee was possibly not a victim and more of person who might be guilty. As they were both police officers I found that odd but things did sort themselves out as the book progressed.
As I said this is not my usual sort of book and the things that I don't like about these books are also evident in this. The plot is somewhat contrived and the 'baddie' is so briefly mentioned then cast aside so that the reader has actually forgotten about him when the guilty party is named. Hopefully that is not a spoiler! It is very much an Agatha Christie style of novel but set in Navaho country with references to Navaho ways and beautiful descriptions of the area.
The characters were okay. They were interesting enough but some were a bit obvious in my view. I wasn't really made to empathise too much with any of the characters; I felt more like I was watching from outside rather than in the book if that makes sense. I was far more taken with the story and how it fitted in with the Navaho beliefs and the setting.
What I did find interesting were all the little things that we learned about the Navaho. When a Navaho person goes to another person's house he parks the car and waits so that the home owner has time to be prepared for the visitor. He then calls out " Ya - tah -hey" and once they meet they introduce themselves with their name and their tribe and the branch of their tribe so that any relationship is easily recognised. I found that sort of thing really added to me interest in the story.
Another interesting little fact that the reader picks up about Navaho manners is that it is rude to make direct eye contact with anyone in conversation. The reader learns this indirectly through the fact that Jim Chee's non Navaho girlfriend who is working as a teacher on the reservation. She struggles with the fact that when she asks them to look at her when she is talking to and they still don't and it isn't until she is told that it is considered rude in Navaho culture that she is able to understand why they refuse to look at her directly.
Basically this is a detective story and the Navajo Tribal Police have a number of murders to solve as well as an attempt on a Navaho policeman, Chee's life. So far a rather annoying social worker has been shot, an old man has been killed by being hit by a shovel and pushed down a cliff and a third man has been stabbed. On the way we find suspects and people who they feel might be guilty.
One person is actually questioned about the stabbing and he admits to killing the man but says he has shot him!! As you can see there are lots of twists and turns in the story and people you think are guilty end of not involved and the eventual killer is someone you never thought of, as I said, very Agatha Christie.
Another clue in all the murders is that small bone pellets were found in all the autopsies and this leads to suspicion that it is a Navaho witch craft which Jim Leaphorn is not at all happy about taking into consideration in his investigations. His colleague we met in the first chapter is a full Navaho and is able to carry out certain Navaho spiritual performances so he is far more open to investigating the presence of the bone beads in the corpses and the fact that they may be looking at Navaho spiritual killings.
This is yet another of the Navaho beliefs that we learn about while reading the book that actually I found more engaging than the actual story at times. We learn that when bone beads are put in a body it causes 'corpse sickness'. This is where the title of the book comes from as the people who can inflict 'corpse sickness' are Skinwalkers, who are a sort of bad witch which can take on any animal shape as a disguise. While in disguise they keep they human intelligence but can take on the animal's power but so much stronger. They often kill at night using their supernatural powers combined with special spells and horrible curses. As with all things in Native American tribes things are never that simple and this curse can be reversed if these bone beads are sent back into them. It makes the investigation extra complicated as the discovery of bone beads can either be a true victim or may even be a Skinwalker receiving his bone beads back.
I was really interested in the setting and incidentals in the story. The actual detective story was very formulaic but never the less it had me guessing. I found the style of writing very easy to read and although I didn't greatly empathized with the characters they were not unlikable. Some felt more like real people than others but on the whole they were believable which I always think is a good sign. As I was reading I was able to picture people we met while we were in the area and the scenery is just perfectly described. I was transported back to the Navaho Nation and my visit to Four Corners and our coffee stop in Kayenta.
I was sufficiently taken with the book to search out others by this author and that is always a good sign I think. This is one of few books that both my husband and I have enjoyed. I am not keen on blood and guts and do like books with characters that I empathize with and that feel real. This was a quick read but deeper that just and old fashioned detective novel because of the setting and the detail with which the Navaho ways of life and belief are described.
Thanks to MALU who tipped me off about this book with her excellent review. I hope I have managed a review that is up to her standard and done it justice.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.