The Wailing Wind, by Tony Hillerman

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I have posted a bibliography with brief reviews of all the Tony Hillerman "Navajo mysteries," and a review of the later entries in the series: Hunting Badger and The Sinister Pig. You might also be interested in a comprehensive essay on what I call "American Indian Mysteries."

Here's a quick link to Hillerman offerings at Amazon.

The previous "Navajo mystery," Hunting Badger, was the low point in the series for a number of reasons, including shoddy editing by Hillerman's complacent publisher, HarperCollins. I'm happy to report that The Wailing Wind is a much better book. Not one of the best in this excellent series, but a fun read that offers the novice a taste of what makes the series must haves for mystery readers and devotees of the Southwest, and advances the continuing threads that interest the committed Hillerman fan. It won't supplant the gems of the series, Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, or Coyote Waits, but it won't disappoint either.

A continuing series must offer development and consistency to keep the reader coming back. The development should be subtle enough that we don't finish each book with the sense that we are being teased. Laura Joh Rowland's "Sano the Samurai" series and the Thurlo machine's endless Ella Clah Nexploitation series are a prime examples of how not to handle continuity. Rowland concludes each book with some newly discovered dangerous adversary who is just flexing his (or her, in the last novel) muscles. Tune in next time, at $25 a whack. And the Thurlos play the climax interruptus game with all the subtlety of a cadging whore. If you are going to build your royalty castle around the flash of thigh that promises more in the next show, the next show better be a bit more revealing than the one that ended with that cynical promise. The simile is invidious. So is the practice it describes.

Although Hillerman has made the occasional gaffe (like the famous promotion of Jim Chee that disappeared in the next novel with nary an explanation), there is a sense that time is moving forward in the novels. There is both growth and revelation. Here, Joe's relationship with his white female anthropologist friend continues to be discreet while growing more intimate. One feels that it would be bad manners to wonder if they've "done it." And Joe's memories of his beloved wife, Emma, remain central to understanding his life and its new directions.

Jim Chee discovers Bernie Manuelito is a girl! Finally!

There is a certain static harmony in Joe's life; that complacency would be unsatisfactory with Jim Chee, who is maturing and evolving even as Joe is slipping into earned and productive retirement. With the death of his uncle Frank Sam Nakai, Jim's ambitions to be a singer are on hold, but his commitment to staying a Navajo in Dine' Bike'yah, which has cost him his first two lovers' affections, is still strong.

Skinwalkers on
Mystery Theater

Do not miss the PBS Mystery Theater dramatization of Skinwalkers, coming in the Fall season of 2002. Starring Adam Beach (Smoke Signals) and Wes Studi (make your own list), and directed by Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals, again), it should re-establish the good intentions of Robert Redford, which were badly sullied by some unfortunate decisions when he produced The Dark Wind a few years ago with Fred Ward (Fred Ward?) as Joe Leaphorn and his crew managed to even irritate the 'peaceful' Hopi.

And, on the subject of lovers, Jim's finally noticed Bernadette Manuelito. Finally. Weeks after Bernie's mother, as reported in a funny early scene with her embarrassed daughter, has inquired discreetly to ascertain that Jim is not clan-related and is therefore quite "eligible." Jim is Slow Talking Dineh, born to Bitter Water. Talking isn't all he's slow about; I've had my eye on Officer Manuelito for three books.

Bernie is, in fact, one of the conspicuous centers of The Wailing Wind. We see much of the action through her eyes, and the growing friendship/love between her and Jim is founded on mutual respect that is a key to the plot. Officer Manuelito has found a dead body and botched the scene, partially from inexperience and partially because of her traditional Navajo nicety about contact with the dead. She even accidentally tampers with evidence.

Chee, exercising his legendary tact, makes her feel like an idiot but then, with Leaphorn's collusion, manages to get her off the hook with the FBI. And at the same time, even though she thinks she's been suspended by Chee, she redeems her self-respect by tracking down a significant clue on her own initiative (and under fire). It is a wonderfully balanced bit of action. At the same time it calls Bernie's suitability for her job into question, thus setting up a surprise in the final pages, and it demonstrates and confirms her courage, tenacity, and intelligence. And all the questions it raises are resolved most satisfactorily by the conclusion of the novel.

But the plot: A young man, Thomas Doherty, is found murdered under circumstances that connect him to a lost gold mine and a wealthy Gallup eccentric oil man, Wiley Denton. Denton shot and killed a con man named McKay some years before the novel begins, claiming self-defense and plea-bargaining his sentence to less than a year. The con man was trying to sell Denton the location of the mine that the newly murdered man also has been looking for. Denton's wife Linda inexplicably disappeared on the day of the first killing, and her disappearance is the nagging detail that draws Leaphorn into the action. Did her husband kill her? Unlikely. Did she abscond? Unlikely.

The plot? Well, nobody's perfect, neh?

Ghost stories, infidelity, and Navajo sacred grounds all play a role in the explanation of the second murder, and by the novel's end a number of things have turned out to be not what they seemed.

There are some rough edges on the plot. The location of the missing wife is clear to us long before Leaphorn or anyone else has figured out what seems obvious. There are fundamental questions about the circumstances of the first killing which we are simply expected to believe no one thought to ask. And the final pages, with their tangle of who really loved whom and who really betrayed whom and who was right about whom, are a bit of a muddle. We exit the book puzzled over two key characters who appear to have done things inconsistent with what we are intended to think about their morals and ethics. It leaves the brain a bit itchy. But the folds and redirections and misdirections of the primary plot thread—who killed Thomas Doherty and why?—work nicely.

As usual, Hillerman handles the cultural material with a brilliant mix of accuracy and discretion. Topping the sweet and funny "momma" scene in the first few pages, the most entertaining moment in the story is the interview between the FBI and a Navajo singer, with Jim Chee weaving his own simultaneous interview into the fabric of the assistance he provides to the inept translator the FBI agent is relying on. The scene begins with a wonderfully arch exchange between Chee and the singer (p. 120) when Chee figures out that the singer speaks English. "He doesn't know you understand English," Jim says to Hostiin Peshlakai in Navajo. "It is true," the singer replies dryly, leaving the comical ambiguity for us to sort out.

Hillerman's Navajo mystery novels are comfortable entertainments offered by a good storytelling uncle. Evil is real in them; always, "coyote waits," but there never any doubt that it will not prevail. Trouble but not too threatening. And harmony is achieved in each book, even if, a couple of times, at the expense of justice. The people we love are seldom in danger.

We are among friends in Hillerman's novels, men and women, red and white, modern and traditional.

The closest Hillerman has come to harming one of them is with the death of Emma Leaphorn, and he was careful to have that happen between books, so to speak, to soften the blow.

We are among friends in these novels, and that, I think, is their primary appeal, beyond the controversial issue of authentic or imaginary Navajo lore. Amidst all the conflict between Anglo and Indian today, it is a comfort, even if an illusory and self-serving one, to visit a place where white and red, male and female, each working their own accommodation of tradition to the modern world, live in troubled harmony if not lasting peace. A utopia of sorts, and certainly not the real world, as Hillerman would be the first to attest. But a nice place to visit, and a good crowd of people to know, respect, and love.

Buy The Wailing Wind at

Some links for more information on Hillerman:
The best biographical source is his memoir, of course. My bibliography of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries includes a chronology and brief reviews of each book. Another solid place to look is "The unofficial Tony Hillerman Homepage" maintained by Susan Mueller at UM/St. Louis. Mueller's site will provide lots of paper and electronic resources. You might also be interested in a PBS online interview; it's a few years old. A specialized location is the Tony Hillerman "glossary," which provides easy access to explanations of Navajo terms in the novels. I can't vouch for its accuracy, however.

If you are looking for other writers to read while you wait for the next "Navajo Police mystery" (which could be two years away), read my essay on "American Indian Mysteries" for a slew of suggestions, including your two best bets, Thomas Perry and Kirk Mitchell.

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