There are lots of good westerns, but not too many good Western mystery writers. There are even fewer good dramatizations.Turn on the tube and any night you’ll see Belgians, retired English spinsters, medieval English monks, even impoverished food experts. So when I moved out here almost 8 years ago, and wanted to start reading Western mysteries,my only real choice was Tony Hillerman. Luckily.
I’ve spent a lot of time driving west of I-25. I been on practically every paved inter-city and interstate road in Colorado,and driven through every western state at least twice. Part of the reason I moved out here was to save the travel day eachway on my vacations. So when Hillerman describes Shiprock, or the Painted Desert, or the gas station in Cameron, or even themountains of northern New Mexico at dawn, I’ve been there.
Hillerman also introduced me (and several million others) to the Navajo mythology. I don’t agree with the Navajo conceptionof the world. But remember, as Indian tribes go, the Navajo have been more successful than most in protecting their sacredspots, and expanding their territory. So since they have a semi-autonomous region within the borders of the US, it’sprobably worth learning something about them. In this case, Hillerman extends his view to the Hopi, teaching us somethingabout their origin mythology and a little about their present-day practice.
This story revolves around some diamonds, an actual 1956 airplane collision over the Grand Canyon, Some diamonds may have turned up from that crash, andthat’s got some heirs and potential heirs very interested. It’s also got Jim Chee trying to help his Hopi friend, CowboyDashee, to clear Dashee’s cousin of a robbery where he allegedly picked up one of the diamonds. Chee and Bernie Manuelito arefinally engaged, and a subplot deals with his trailer and her cold feet.
Joe Leaphorn does make a cameo, but Hillerman may be starting to phase him out. Leaphorn’s been retired a while, and his reappearances are becoming increasingly contrived.
Skeleton Man is, by my count, the 18th book featuring Joe Leaphorn and/or Jim Chee. There have been some opinions that Hillerman has started to lose his touch. While Fallen Man was considered substandard by many Hillerman fans, I thought both Sinister Pig and Wailing Wind were pretty good. The problem here is different. This mystery readsmore like a suspense – there’s no whodunit. By the middle pages we already know all the characters and their motivations, and we’re pretty much seeing how the story plays out. The storytelling is superb, and you do end up caring how it turns out.
Just don’t expect a mystery.