When I learned that the daughter of the late mystery writer Tony Hillerman had stepped up and written a novel featuring the same Southwest landscape and the same Navajo characters as her famous dad, I didn’t know what to think.
Tony Hillerman was such an accomplished writer, virtually unparalleled in producing 18 novels that honored the Navajo culture while also conveying the barren beauty of the rugged terrain that defines much of Arizona and New Mexico.
The answer is yes.
Thanks to my friend, Lynn St. Georges, I took a borrowed book with me on a recent vacation and breezed through its 352 pages in no time at all. “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” the debut novel by Anne Hillerman, was a pleasant surprise. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was Tony’s 19th, so similar is the book in plot, structure and voice.
Leaphorn and Chee are at the center of the story, of course. But they are joined by a new-to-me character, Officer Bernadette Manuelito, who is Chee’s wife. Manuelito appears in Hillerman’s 15th and 16th books (“The Wailing Wind” and “The Sinister Pig”) but this was the first time I’d encountered her.
Suffice to say she blends in neatly with the other two Navajo detectives, sharing a common culture and a knack for solving crimes.
In “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” Manuelito plays a critical role in figuring out who shot a law enforcement colleague, drawing on her university studies and knowledge of Native American art — plus her quick wits when she inevitably finds herself in harm’s way.
Tony Hillerman died in 2008. With his passing, I figured that was the last of the Leaphorn and Chee series. Little did I know that Anne Hillerman was a Santa Fe-based writer herself, with four non-fiction books to her credit.
In her acknowledgments at the end of “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” she wrote:
(F)rom head to toe, I appreciate the scores of my dad’s fans who asked if he had another manuscript stashed away somewhere (no, he didn’t). Like me they wanted more stories of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and Bernadette Manuelito. They urged me to jump into the job by sharing their own stories of affection for Dad, the characters he created, and the landscape in which they lived.”
I think Tony would be awfully proud of his Anne. He left big shoes to fill. In my view, his daughter has taken one step forward, with a display of skill and respect for her father and the fictional world he brought to life for us readers. Already, she’s taken a second step with the publication of a second Navajo Tribal Police mystery called “Rock With Wings.”
Random observation: Except for the actress Bernadette Peters and my niece Bernadette Hermocillo Rackley, I’m hard pressed to think of any real-life or fictional people with that first name.
Photograph: Eddie Moore, Albuquerque Journal/2012