There is a good chance this is the last "Navajo mystery." Sadly, the series has petered out into repetition, reminiscences, self-references, and arch in-jokes. As you read the last few pages, for the first time there is a sense that there no more questions to carry you into the next book. Jim Chee's romance woes are resolved. Joe Leaphorn and Louisa Bourbonette have come to an accommodation. No new Navajo cops are introduced to carry the series forward.
If Hillerman had stopped with The Fallen Man or even The First Eagle, the novels would be remembered for their sustained excellence, like James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series or Dennis Lehane's five-novel series featuring Patrick and Angie Gennaro. As it is, the final four Leaphorn/Chee novels, beginning with the First Eagle, have been increasingly disappointing, mainly of interest to fans and habitués. The Sinister Pig is not the weakest book in the series (that award goes to Hunting Badger, hands down) but there is little here to serve as example of the excellence that peaked with A Thief of Time, Skinwalkers, and Coyote Waits.
The plot evolves from industrial espionage into a complicated drug deal whose details are barely credible. In the first chapter, a mysterious figure is murdered on the Big Rez. He has apparently come to Navajo Country to investigate a problem with gas pipelines belonging to energy mining interests. Because of the clandestine nature of the man's assignment, the body remains publicly unidentified, although the series nemesis, the FBI, seems to know who he is.
Who ordered his murder? A powerful financial figure on the East Coast, but not for the reason we might surmise. Bernie Manuelito, Chee's current and uncooperative love interest, has taken a job with the Border Patrol that leads her into the middle of the real crime, an elaborate drug deal that hinges on one meaning of the term "sinister pig." While Chee and Leaphorn, for different reasons, are investigating the murder, quickly it becomes clear to the reader that Bernie is in serious danger.
The key villain is a wealthy tycoon who inexplicably comes to New Mexico to commit a second murder, one a sensible villain would have hired out. And he is accompanied by a stock hired gun, the obvious candidate for the assignment, a man we meet after he commits an implausible crime at the tycoon's behest, and who turns out to have a secret that only piles on more implausibility.
Bernie Manuelito has emerged, finally, as Jim's romantic interest, but their inability to communicate their feelings is a sore point with both of them. Bernie takes her new assignment to escape from proximity to Jim, who does not appear to return her feelings, and Chee assumes her departure means she doesn't reciprocate his feelings for her. Tangle, tangle. In earlier books, Bernie's new job with the Desert Wolves unit of the Border Patrol would have lead to an informative look into this timely theme. The Desert Wolves are American Indians who come from the border region and have Special Forces skills that enable them to deal effectively with coyotes (escorts of illegal aliens) and mules (drug runners). But Hillerman tells us nothing about them; we hardly even see one, and we never see them in action.
Instead, Bernie stumbles across a suspicious building on an "off limits" ranch, and quickly this discovery is connected to the mysterious murder up on the Big Rez. Bernie's inquisitiveness brings her to the attention of criminal elements on both sides of the border and of a traitor in the very midst of her unit. Learning of her danger through his investigation of the mysterious corpse, Jim recruits Cowboy Dashee, a Hopi police officer who recently jumped the fence to join the BLM, to help him gain access to the property, and everyone converges upon a shootout that is a bit confusing but satisfyingly final.
What is missing? There is very little that is Navajo in the book. Others have been similar in this regard, including The Fallen Man, which solves a missing person case that involves some environmental issues. But even in The Fallen Man, Navajo attitudes and perceptions play an integral part in the action. Here, we could as easily be watching Nick Nolte and Demi Moore playing out a Michael McGarrity story of Southwestern espionage. Fine, but not what I ordered.
Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is sheer implausibility. The criminal tycoon comes to New Mexico in service of the plot. Catching him is much easier if he's nearby. His underlings are an odd bunch of vaguely defined government officials and military ne'er-do-wells whose various loyalties are hard to sort out without a chart. And the misunderstanding between Jim and Bernie is resolved in a single, breathless page of "I thought" and "But I thought."
Tony Hillerman has earned his retirement. I recently re-read all the Chee/Leaphorn novels. Not only do they stand up to re-reading (the plots of many are complex enough that on second reading, years later, I can't recall who the killer is till I'm quite a ways in), but they will remain classics in their genre through the foreseeable future. Hillerman has done as much as any writer living or dead to personalize and humanize Indian people, especially his Navajo friends. For an outsider's view of these unique and fascinating people, and of what their values have to teach us, you won't find a better place to go.
So, perhaps, no more Chee/Leaphorn mysteries, and a series that ends with a sputter rather than the dazzle of fireworks. To see what all the enthusiasm was about, read the great ones: Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns. Read The Sinister Pig to say a reluctant but inevitable farewell to a cast of good friends and good people.
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