The Shape Shifter
By Tony Hillerman
Harper Collins Publishers
By BILL DUNCAN
At age 82, Tony Hillerman, a writer who sort of backed into a writing career, is not ready to retire and neither is his Navajo Tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn.
That is evident in his newest Navajo Tribal Police thriller, "The Shape Shifter," which may be one of the best of Hillerman’s long list of detective stories about the Navajo Nation. As in his pevious books, Hillerman can’t seem to let Joe Leaphorn retire, enticing him again to return to sleuthing in this latest novel. Readers have become familiar with his other characters, namely Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito, both officers in the Navajo Tribal Police.
He includes them both in this latest book, but only as minor characters, returning from their honeymoon.
Oh, yes, Jimmy and Bernie have finally taken their vows and she is sprucing up Jimmy’s dilapidated trailer home with lace curtains and spotlessly clean floors.
"The Shape Shifter," a Navajo term for a myth about humans turning into animal and bird shapes, features Leaphorn’s police colleagues only in brief encounters. The plot from beginning to end is about Joe Leaphorn, the retired detective who is brought back into an old case that he felt was never resolved and continues to haunt him. He digs back into the case, that he worked as a young officer, involving a priceless, one-of-a-kind Navajo rug woven with all the sorrows of the Navajo people. The rug had supposedly been destroyed in a fire.
He recalls that he was pulled away from another investigation in which a Navajo grandmother complained about the theft of two buckets of pinyon sap she had painstakingly collected to seal and waterproof her hand-woven baskets. The FBI was in charge of the investigation into the fire at a reservation trading post where one of their most wanted criminals burned to death, along with the Navajo "Woven Sorrow" rug.
Now, a retired sheriff’s deputy from Flagstaff, Ariz. writes Leaphorn a letter that includes a magazine picture of a rug similar to the one that was supposedly destroyed in a fire and invites Leaphorn to join him in an interrogation of the new owner of the rug, a mysterious man named Delos. Before Leaporn arrives in Flagstaff, the deputy has already visited Delos and has disappeared after the visit. Leaphorn suspects foul play.
He picks up the threads of the old crime, but finds that the passage of time has obscured the details. In typical Leaphorn fashion, he ferrets out the truth, nearly getting killed while unraveling the mystery. He doggedly persists, knowing there’s a murderer still on the loose.
Hillerman is at the top of his form in this novel set amid the rugged beauty of his beloved Southwest. The fact he keeps bringing Leaphorn out of retirement to continue his sleuthing has caused some to think he is really writing about himself.
He reassures an interviewer that he is not ready to retire as a writer. "How can you stop writing," he said. As a fan of Hillerman, that is good news. "The Shape Shifter," is his 21st book about the Navajo Tribal Police, a series that has introduced people around the globe to the culture and traditions of the Navajo people.
Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, Okla., a small Catholic community in Pottawatomie County where his father was a farmer and shopkeeper. Most of his friends and classmates were Native American.
He left during World War II to join the Army and was wounded badly in 1945 in an explosion that broke his two legs, a foot, an ankle, and caused facial burns, leading to temporary blindness. He was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, and the Purple Heart.
He had written his mother letters from overseas, letters that his mother, Lucy Grove Hillerman, shared with a newspaper reporter when her son was decorated for valor. The reporter, Hillerman says in his memoirs, "Seldom Disappointed," encouraged him to write professionally. He became a reporter and worked on various newspapers in the Southwest for the next 15 years. During that time he discovered a Navajo healing ceremony for men returning from military service. "It seemed like a great way to bring soldiers back into the community, deal with the nightmares, and all that stuff," he said in an interview.
When he began writing books it seemed natural to choose the Navajo reservation as a setting and to develop characters who would accurately portray Navajo traditional values. Hillerman is already planning a new Navajo Tribal Police thriller, but admits his health is a concern. Like his character Joe Leaphorn in "The Shape Shifter," he just keeps on surviving and entertaining a vast number of readers.
(Bill Duncan is editor of The Senior Times. He writes a weekly column that appears on the Thursday Opinion Page.)