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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.
Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn from the Navajo Tribal Police has three and a half murders to solve. A female social worker has been shot, an elderly man hit with a shovel on his head and then shoved down a cliff, another man has been stabbed to death and his colleague Jim Chee has been shot at when sleeping in his trailer. He finds a suspect for the stabbing, but the man declares that he's shot the man who was stabbed and is happy to have done so. Later he's shot as well which ups the number to four and a half murders.
Too many deaths in a relatively short time for Leaphorn to believe in coincidences, but where is the connection? He's a methodical man, he puts pins into the map of the reservation at the places where the murders and the attempted murder occurred and stares at them again and again waiting for inspiration.
There is one peculiarity which may point to a common 'theme' behind the murders. Bone beads are found inside the corpse of the stabbed man, at the end of the bullet Jim Chee find in his trailer and in the purse of the man who claimed to have shot the stabbed man. Bone beads inflicted into a body cause 'corpse sickness' according to the spiritual belief of traditional Navajos. They're used by Skinwalkers, mostly male vicious witches, who can adopt any animal shape or remain in their human shape keeping their human intelligence but adopt a certain animal's power and multiply it. Skinwalkers usually kill at night using their supernatural strength and magical spells and curses. The Skinwalkers' magic can be reversed and corpse sickness given back to them if a bone bullet is shot back into them. So the people found with bone beads can either be the victims of a Skinwalker or Skinwalkers themselves to which the victims have sent back the bone beads in order to avert corpse sickness.
Joe Leaphorn isn't happy that he has to occupy himself with Navajo witchcraft, it's not an easy feat for a man sceptical of everything supernatural. He doesn't believe in witchcraft, in fact he abhors it, but he takes his people's belief in it seriously, especially if it's the cause for murder. Of course, there's always the possibility that someone who doesn't believe in witchcraft, either, uses it to cover up a crime of a different nature.
His younger colleague Jim Chee is more traditional, he believes in the power of rituals, of drawing sand pictures and singing healing songs. He's training to be a shaman and is happy when he's invited to perform a ritual. Unfortunately, the invitation is a sham and nearly costs him his life - again.
Skinwalkers is the first thriller in the series which sees Leaphorn and Chee working together. Their different outlook on Navajo traditions distinguishes the characters and adds a personal note. They're also given personal problems which makes them round in a literary sense. Leaphorn is convinced that his beloved wife of many years shows the beginning of Alzheimer's, Chee has to come to terms with the differences between himself and his white girl-friend. A tiny sub-plot featuring a domestic cat gone wild mirrors this relationship. Chee watches the cat which has set up 'home' near his trailer and ponders on how the inexperienced animal can survive in the wilderness, for example the attack of a coyote. What he does for it and in the end with it shows that he's understood what is going on between him and his girl-friend.
Tony Hillerman (1925 - 2008) wrote 30 books in total but became most famous with his 18 thrillers (Skinwalkers is the 7th) set in the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona, sometimes reaching into Colorado and Utah. He did thorough research work and is highly esteemed not only by his white readership but also by the Navajos which is the greatest praise possible, of course. His books belong to a sub category of the thriller genre, i.e., thriller plots embedded in an ethnic background. Hillerman admitted that he was influenced by an earlier series of mystery novels written by the British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield set among tribal aborigines in remote desert regions of tropical and subtropical Australia. (see my review on Arthur W. Upfield)
It's not possible to extract the plot from the ethnic background or vice versa. The crimes are based on Navajo tradition or triggered by it or by clashes with the white majority. Cultural clashes happen all the time, not all of them lead to murder, of course. I find it fascinating to learn about the Navajo way of seeing the world and behaving towards other people. Simple things suffice to show the divide which can only be surmounted by mutual understanding and tolerance.
Jim Chee's white girl-friend works as a teacher in the reservation. She's desperate when teaching the Navajo children, they don't look at her when she's talking. She can shout, "Look at me" again and again, they just don't. They've grown up with the knowledge that it's impolite to have eye contact during a conversation. Politeness plays a great rôle in the life of the Navajos, for example when they visit each other, they stay outside the host's door long enough so that the host can notice them and prepare themselves and/or the house for the visit. Never would they intrude on each other. Social control is extensive as they're all more or less related to each other through the maternal or paternal lines spanning different clans. When they meet, they always introduce themselves reciting their pedigree.
I can recommend the book and the other thrillers by Tony Hillerman set in the Navajo reservation for readers who just think it's time for a change, who're bored with the same old, same old whitey killing other whitey(s) and for readers who think it's a good idea to learn new things in an enjoyable way. I knew nothing about the lives of the Australian Aborigines before I discovered Arthur W. Upfield and I knew nothing about the Navajos before I discovered Tony Hillerman. Now I know a bit and am glad about that.