Navajo Policemen On a Big-City Trail

By , Catherine Foster is on the Monitor staff.

TALKING GOD, by Tony Hillerman. New York: Harper & Row. 239 pp. $17.95.

HALFWAY through Tony Hillerman's latest mystery, ``Talking God,'' he removes us from the familiar red dust of the Southwest and yanks us off to Washington's stone buildings and stone faces in three-piece suits. To readers who've come to anticipate the deep immersion into Navajo culture that his books bring, the change of venue is disappointing. That's the trouble with getting attached to a series. You like the predictable.

In ``Talking God'' (his 11th mystery), as in his ``Thief of Time,'' ``Skinwalker,'' and ``People of Darkness,'' Hillerman propels the action through two familiar Navajo tribal policemen, the young Jim Chee and the older, more famous, Joe Leaphorn. This time, they want to solve the murder of a man found in the middle of the desert, with no tracks around him.

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Because it happened off the reservation, the case is supposed to belong to the local police. But they (and later, the FBI) don't seem to be too interested, so Chee and Leaphorn, separately, start snooping. (One of the points Hillerman makes frequently is that the white world doesn't care a whole lot about the Navajo). Their investigations take them into a controversy over the Smithsonian's refusal to return Indian bones for burial, Chilean politics, shady development deals on reservation land, and a pathological mercenary with a cantankerous mother.

As always, Hillerman's books envelope the reader in Southwest life: ponderosa forests, pinon-juniper hills, red sandstone ramparts, as well as roadside cafes and trailers. His books also are rich in Navajo culture. Readers learn about the Yeibichai, a traditional curing ceremonial that takes nine days and costs a bundle, that an old boot on top of a post means that someone is home, that shaking hands is not a Navajo custom, and that not rushing people is.

This information is built into the narrative; the reader never feels preached at. Hillerman not only provides a painless education, but he also presents refreshing, unstereotypical portraits. Leaphorn and Chee have a quiet manliness not often associated with policemen in popular culture; they're swaggerless.

And there's a maturity about their relationships with women. Chee is still wounded that the white woman he loves couldn't live on the reservation and he couldn't live off it. He also treats his woman friend, a Navajo lawyer prominent in the story, as a real friend. Leaphorn continues to mourn the loss of his beloved wife Emma, who, as his sounding board, helped him solve crimes.

Women figure prominently in other ways, too. Job slots that in another writer's hands might be filled by men are occupied by women; intelligent, competent, and often witty. In Washington, a head curator who explains the museum's controversial policies, a helpful pharmacist who tracks down a lead through computerized medical records, a security guard, and a cab driver, are all women.

But at the same time, ``Talking God'' tries to be in too many places at once. To tie together a young belagaana (an Anglo) determined to prove a Navajo heritage with Chilean torturers, and separate disputes over a Native American mask and an Incan mask, stretches credulity too far. In the end, the centrifugal force that holds characters, sense of place, and mystery together breaks down, and everything goes flying.

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