Wednesday, July 04, 2007

People of Darkness by Tony Hillerman

I finished my first Tony Hillerman mystery — a Jim Chee novel, People of Darkness. I enjoyed it, and at some future date I'll likely go back to the Hillerman shelf for more. Hillerman writes a sturdy mystery; People of Darkness would make an excellent discussion point for any first-year fiction workshop. The standard mystery-thriller elements are present and accounted for: a mysterious wealthy man desirous to have his McGuffin returned to him, a series of inexplicable deaths, an “engineer” (a professional hit-man unaccustomed to seeing his work screwed up) and a lone-wolf lawman who has to nut it all out before he's killed in an avalanche of violence triggered by greed.

Pro “reviewers” occasionally roll their eyes at such unadorned narrative tent-posts, but identifiable elements are integral to every story and good writers (and their editors) have a sense of which “tricks” to employ to keep the reader turning pages. Hillerman's stunt is to approach the whole mess from the point of view of a Navajo Indian. In this novel, Hillerman's protagonist (Chee) solves the case while doing a little mulling over an inner conflict of his own: should he further embrace the White Man's world by training with the FBI, or should he proceed with the more intricate Navajo rites of passage? Hillerman paints a persuasive picture of an Indian approaching a White Man's crime and using an Indian world-view to bring one small corner of his world back into balance.

Hillerman's characterization is respectful and not a little romantic — he freely admits in his memoirs that he was charmed by the Navajo point of view thanks to two Navajo shipmates returning with him from the war in Europe. The skeptic in me wonders if Navajos aren't as prone as other Indian tribes to the pitfalls of substance abuse and despair. It could be they aren't; it could also be this is something Hillerman touches on in other books. James Lee Burke certainly doesn't address the height and breadth of all Louisiana's evils in a single Dave Robicheaux novel (even though the rage in his prose suggests that's a very real temptation), and George Pelecanos, as ambitious an ego as one could hope to find in an author, is canny enough to parcel out his city's issues one novel at a time.

Pelecanos is worth mentioning, because Hillerman (and Burke) can rightly claim to have paved the way for him. Half of Pelecanos' protagonists are Greek (Pelecanos' background), the other half are black (not Pelecanos' background). It takes a certain level of fearlessness to explore “the other”: racial, cultural, sexual, religious — any other. Hillerman took pains to explore with sensitivity, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

4 comments:

Michael Blowhard said...

Nice one, tks. I like Hillerman too -- there's a kind of warmth there that I find very moving. Craftwise ... Well, he writes lovely straightforward prose that has color and is evocative. The characters are alive, the settings are interesting -- what's not to like? I can never keep his mysteries straight, though -- my failing or his, I don't know. FWIW, I've read a half-dozen of his mysteries, and I found that the earlier ones tend to be more rewarding. He did a nice collection of eccentric journalism too, "The Great Taos Bank Robber" if I remember right. It was really wonderful -- like quirky New Yorker reported pieces, only a lot less precious.

Whisky Prajer said...

Cowtown Pattie recommended the earlier mysteries, too. And I could imagine the journalism being quite a treat. I'll definitely put those on my "used book store" shopping list.

Peter said...

If Navajos indeed are less prone to substance abuse than other tribes, it might be because people on the reservation live in a dispersed manner rather than clustering in towns (a point Hillerman's often made). Dense living probably increases the risk of alcohol and drug use.

Cowtown Pattie said...

You know, I just remembered an old Louis L'Amour book that had an essence of Hillerman: Haunted Mesa.

Very atypical of L'Amour, but quite good, if you like Hillerman's mysteries.