Southwestern sleuths

It took weeks for me to get through John Updike’s “Rabbit Is Rich.” It took me just a few days to whip through Anne Hillerman’s “Rock With Wings.”

It’s not that “Rabbit” was ever less than absorbing. I’m simply a deliberate, even plodding, reader.

In the case of the Hillerman book, it was an effortless read. With short chapters, a familiar landscape and characters, and multiple riddles in need of resolution, the pages flew by.

rockWithWingsThe verdict? Anne Hillerman is now 2 for 2 in my eyes. Picking up where her late father Tony left off, Anne has written another captivating mystery featuring a trio of Navajo Tribal Police: Sgt. Jim Chee, Officer Bernie Manuelito, and their boss, Lt. Joe Leaphorn.

This one, coming on the heels of Anne’s debut novel, “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” focuses on the husband-wife team of Chee and Manuelito while Leaphorn continues to recover from a bullet wound to the head suffered in the previous novel.

As with all the books in the series, the main appeal is the setting: the expansive desert landscape encompassing the Navajo Nation in the Southwestern United States. I’ve seen enough of Arizona and New Mexico to know I would never want to live there. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate how the rugged terrain helps define the three main characters and, in fact, becomes like a character itself.

Likewise, I have nothing admiration for those aspects of Navajo culture emphasizing respect for the land, honoring the elders, and caring for one’s family members, no matter their circumstance. One thing that has always stood out to me is the practice of simply listening — of letting someone have their say, without talking over them or rushing to fill a void.

All that said, Anne Hillerman lays out several narrative threads — so many that you wonder how they will all come together by the end of the novel.

Chee gets caught up with one set of issues involving a Hollywood movie crew that’s filming a zombie movie near sacred lands. Just after a woman goes missing, Chee discovers a mysterious mound of dirt and rocks that could be a gravesite.

Meanwhile, Manuelito tries to puzzle out why a motorist she stopped for speeding is so nervous about containers of dirt in his car trunk. At the same time, she investigates a car fire in the middle of nowhere and comes to the aid of an elderly Navajo man who’s resisting selling his property to a solar energy development company.


Anne Hillerman is a journalist and author based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Sure enough, the author resolves the mysteries one by one. As a reader, you admire the balancing act, root for the resourcefulness of the tribal cops, and find yourself hungry for more.

Don’t know when or if Hillerman might produce a third novel in this Leaphorn-Chee-Manuelito series, but with the lieutenant still on the mend, I’m sure I’m not the only fan who’s been left hanging.

Photograph:  Jean Fogelberg

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