My buddy Fred has been reading A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez for more than a year. But every time he picks it up, he falls asleep. "That's a great book," he tells me. Sorry, but that book is crap. Indulgent, deadening crap. Great books should never be confused with a heavy dose of barbiturates, no matter how many critics try to make you feel guilty for not reading them.
Hopefully, Fred will not swear off the literary life by the time he tosses Marquez in the trash can, because I'd like him to try some of the most exciting, evocative, compelling fiction published today: Tony Hillerman novels. Hillerman writes books about cops on the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona. But saying Hillerman writes Indian cop novels is like saying Moby Dick is about sportfishing.
You might say Hillerman is half Sherlock Holmes, half Carlos Castaneda. One of Hillerman's more popular books, A Thief of Time, is about murder. An anthropologist on the verge of a major discovery disappears, and soon after, her cohorts start dying. To solve the mystery, Hillerman's cops, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, not only have to pick up all the usual whodunit stuff, they also have to solve a thousand-year-old mystery of Navajo culture.
Now I have a confession to make. Every book is more than a crime mystery, it's an exploration of how the Navajo and belagana — the Navajo term for non-Indians — co-exist on what we call the edge of civilization, but what they say is the center of creation. What we call poverty. What they say is a "walk in beauty."
Many of the books feature detective Leaphorn, a Navajo with an advanced degree in anthropology. Leaphorn no longer believes in the spirits that make this world so alive, but he uses Navajo patience and silence as an investigative tool that rivals the Holmesian magnifying glass.
Leaphorn had learned early in his career that this Navajo politeness often clashed with white abhorrence for conversational silences. Sometimes the resulting uneasiness caused belagana witnesses to blurt out more than they intended to say.
Then there's Sergeant Chee, the other cop. Between his crime-solving chores, Chee is a medicine man who "sings" daylong rituals for cleansing or healing. When Chee is on a case, he's as likely to investigate what has violated his shaman's sense of balance as look for a motive. In this excerpt from The Ghostway Chee finds a murder scene that appears straightforward to the FBI. But not to Chee, a man of the Dinee, the people.
Something was bothering Chee, something a touch out of harmony with things as they should be. What?... Why hadn't the old man done what the Dinee had done for a hundred generations when they saw death approaching? Why hadn't they moved the dying Gorman out of the hogan, out under the eye of Father Sun, into the pure open air. Why hadn't he made his kinsman a deathbed under the arbor, where no walls would have penned in his chindi when death released it, where the ghost could have lost itself in the vastness of the sky? ... The Navajo were not a culture that hides its people away at their dying time. One grew up with the death of one's old people, attending death, respecting it.... Why had he allowed this valued homeplace to be eternally infected with ghost sickness?
Chee knows that if he answers these questions, the murder will solve itself. And he does. And it does.
Any book about Indians is necessarily about the rest of us too. Hillerman's novels are filled with belagana characters that range from the humorous to the murderous. He reserves a special place for the academics who, like someone who would dissect a human to find out why its heart beats, would destroy a culture in order to study it.
... Anthropologist... You translate the word from the academic into English and that's what it means: ruins looter, one who robs graves, preferably old ones. Well-educated person who steals artifact in dignified manner.... Somebody else does it, they call 'em vandals. That's the word for the competition.