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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn Return in Spider Woman's Daughter

By Anne Hillerman
(325 pages)
ISBN: 0062270486
(Harper Collins Publishers, Oct. 1, 2013)

Marriage seems to agree with Navajo Nation Police Sergeant Jim Chee: in Spider Woman's Daughter, the latest in the series of adventures featuring Chee and his former boss, retired police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, he is lighter-hearted, wittier and less solemn and full of self-doubt than he has been in the duo's earlier stories.

You can credit the change to new management: the Chee-Leaphorn franchise was begun by Tony Hillerman with The Blessing Way, a book that focused on Leaphorn alone, in 1970; Chee joined the series in 1986 in the novel Skinwalkers, and the pairing continued until Hillerman's last book, The Shape Shifter, which appeared in 2006, three years before Hillerman died.

Now the continuing saga of Chee and Leaphorn is continuing under the capable stewardship of Hillerman's daughter, Anne, whose first novel is Spider Woman. Ms. Hillerman says she allowed herself to be coaxed into picking up her father's franchise "when I emerged from the worst of my grief after Dad’s death [and] realized that I was also mourning the end of his mystery series. I missed those detectives."

Anne Hillerman, photo courtesy of http://www.annehillerman.com 

Sometimes change is beneficial. In Spider Woman's Daughter, Anne Hillerman continues the thread begun by her father ably, building on his original collection of characters and adding to them in a sure-handed fashion that gives the reader hope the series will continue for many more years.

Of particular note is the fact that the new book builds on the character of Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito, a Navajo Nation police officer who became Sergeant Chee's romantic interest in The Wailing Wind and married him just before the events described in The Shape Shifter. Much of the action of Spider Woman transpires from Bernie's point of view, and both she and her husband play a critical role in its resolution.

The two newlyweds have plenty to keep them busy in this novel, which begins with a deadly shooting in the parking lot of a coffee shop where members of the Navajo police meet regularly to discuss cases and brainstorm investigative techniques. Bernie is on the phone with Chee at the time and sees the crime committed. Because she is a witness, she is precluded from helping in the investigation, but finds ways to do so nonetheless.

In the course of the novel, Manuelito and her husband search for the killer while dealing with a missing friend, untruthful witnesses, family relationships and a cat that unexpectedly adopts them.

We are introduced to members of Bernie's family, including her resentful and alcoholic younger sister and her aged and somewhat infirm mother. The fractious relationship between the two sisters -- who share unequal burdens of caring for their mother -- is deftly handled and will surely remain a running plot element if Hillerman continues the series beyond this novel.

One or two characters appear to have been included primarily to provide mild comedy relief.

One of them is Gloria Benally, whose car originally appears to be a significant clue to the shooting mystery, but eventually is revealed to be relatively unimportant.  The officer's contact with Benally and her continuing effort to recover her vehicle -- which has been booked as evidence -- provides a running gag in Spider Woman.

Benally could have been mentioned and quickly dropped: remember that her vehicle is a dead end for the investigators. That she isn't quickly shuffled in and out of the book is worth noting: Anne Hillerman's father knew there is more to police work than efficiently tracking down suspects and witnesses. Sometimes a cop's encounters are utterly random, but demonstrate the strangeness of a job in which one routinely becomes injected into other people's secret lives. 

This is the phenomenon that one of James Ellroy's characters refers to as "the wonder," and it is one of the elements that professional snoops like police officers and news reporters find completely addictive.

Tony Hillerman was familiar with "the wonder," and his daughter understands it, too. She has no fear in examining quirky events and characters who make her story unfold at what may seem to some readers a leisurely pace. Not every clue in a mystery should lead to an arrest, and not every interview turns up critical evidence. Sometimes these things simply provide the background necessary to understand the circumstances of the story and the place where it occurs.

In the Chee-Leaphorn universe, that sense of place is critical: Tony Hillerman, a transplanted midwesterner who resettled in the Southwest and used it as the backdrop for his stories, conjured the setting admirably in his novels and his daughter does the same in this, her premiere novel. The reader can almost see Shiprock, the massive paleolith that dominates the landscape, smell the dry dust stirred by windstorms and hear the startled yelp of a hidden coyote as the breeze rustles the silence of the Southwestern desert.

Not that Spider Woman consists solely of colorful scenery, quirky characters, humorous situations or investigative dead-ends. There is plenty of action that plays out against the background of a fraudulent trade in precious indian artifacts and the sort of Navajo tribal lore and mythology that Hillerman fans have grown to expect and love.

The plotting is solid and the story rolls along at a sufficiently breakneck pace that I sat in bed and glommed it in a single sitting, starting at 11 in the evening and ending around four the next morning. There also is plenty of head-scratching mystery, although a couple of the red-herrings that have been inserted to mislead readers will probably fail to throw them very far off the track.

There are also flaws, though none of them prove fatal to enjoying the novel.

As a first-time novelist, Anne Hillerman leaves some plot holes that probably would have been eliminated by her father. One of them involves a villain's back story which is too wildly coincidental for my comfort. Another is the fact that a key character was tangentially involved in an earlier murder case that is referred to in the story line, but for some reason, Chee fails to make the connection.

Finally -- and perhaps most tellingly -- Jim Chee becomes suspicious of a key character toward the end of the book but inexplicably is caught unprepared when the villain pulls a weapon on him, temporarily taking him out of the action. Bear in mind that this is a seasoned lawman who has been involved in fifteen other adventures, some of which involved considerable danger. Despite this he is utterly unprepared when the villain strikes.

Equally unlikely, only a few pages further on, his wife Bernie -- who has worked for the Border Patrol as well as the tribal police -- does almost exactly the same thing. These errors are out of character and necessitate a nail-biting rescue sequence that seems rather clumsy and unbelievable in retrospect.

Fortunately, the author manages to find a way for her protagonists to wriggle out of the jams and avoid tumbling into the plot gaps. The novel's conclusion is completely satisfactory and ties up all the loose ends neatly. More importantly, it leaves the reader with the sense that the series will continue. 

For Chee and Leaphorn fans, this is good news, indeed.

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