Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Thief of Time

Ack, as Bill the Cat might say, where has the time gone?  I'm into my third book since my last post, and haven't said boo about the previous two.  So in a break from procedure, I'll post two capsule reviews in one post.  Partly because I don't have tons to say, and partly because I've already returned the books to the library!

I'd listened to a Tony Hillerman audiobook years ago, and enjoyed it, but never actually read anything in this fine series about policing in the Navajo Nation.  Hillerman's Hero is Joe Leaphorn, a cop with the Navajo Tribal Police.  There are a number of Leaphorn stories, but this one earned Hillerman a Public Service Award from the Department of the Interior for the way it highlighted the issues of graverobbing and the vulnerability of sacred archeological sites in the Southwest.  In A Thief of Time (1990, Harper and Row), Leaphorn, struggling to get past the recent death of his wife, is drawn into a missing-persons investigation, surrounding an archeologist who specializes in Anasazi pottery.  When bodies start piling up - everyone from a small-time pothunter to an aging but still powerful local farmer - Leaphorn can't quite turn his back, although he is just two weeks from retirement.  Aided by Jim Chee, a local non-tribal cop, Leaphorn draws on both his native heritage and his police training to find out what happened to the missing archeologist, all the dead people, some stolen machinery and most importantly, who is stealing pots from sacred sites.

What Leaphorn does not use is "modern" technology.  It is the late 1980s - we don't have cellies, or email, or even, really, computers.  We have brains and payphones and heavy duty trucks that we drive hundreds of miles to talk to witnesses and find remote sites.  Leaphorn must rely on his own physical skills, knowledge of the terrain, and brains to sort out the central mystery.  He also must trust that the message gets through, that someone will answer the phone, or follow his instructions.  We trust our technology now perhaps more than we trust our colleagues and contemporaries.  Leaphorn doesn't trust himself to get past his wife's death, but that is really another story.  The point is just that people can solve complex situations, too.

The other thing that I particularly liked about A Thief of Time was Hillerman's restraint surrounding the didactic narrative.  What is that, you ask?  A term I've just coined, denoting the author's desire to instruct his/her audience about whatever arcana illuminates the story.  Look, we love it when authors write about things we don't know about - that's why we read, right?  To learn about and be immersed in somewhere that isn't here.  But as regular readers will know, I really hate it when characters engage in artificially-enlightened conversations, where they trade facts and ideas about topics, just so the reader can then be more informed.  Christopher Fowler is guilty of this in the last of his otherwise delightful Bryant and May mysteries, and I think Martin Walker has done this more and more in his otherwise equally charming Inspector Bruno series.  Hillerman, on the other hand, somehow manages to interweave a great deal of information about modern Navajo and ancient Anasazi ways, without ever distracting from the plot, or making you feel like are reading a monograph on the subject.  Maybe it is because his characters expound at a more advanced level - it is kind of assumed that you have some understanding that the Anasazi are not the Navajo - so it feels a little more naturally connected to the plot.  Has the missing gal actually solved the great mystery of what happened to the Anasazi?  Well, that is a larger question that may or may not be answered here.  But you'll enjoy thinking about it with Joe Leaphorn as your steady guide.  His NYT obit provides a better introduction to Hillerman and his works than I can.

This is not a capsule review.  I'd better start a new page!

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