On the Trail With a Mystery Master

COYOTE WAITS. By Tony Hillerman, New York: Harper & Row, 282 pp., $19.95 MOST mystery novel fans are women. That's what I read someplace recently, and I don't doubt it. As a male, for me most books by today's hot mystery writers hold about as much appeal as an over-ripe banana: I've no interest in coming back for more.

Ah, but Tony Hillerman's 11 mysteries are something else again. Hillerman features two contemporary Navajo tribal policeman, Officer Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. Mind you, these are not Indian old cop/young cop buddy novels. Leaphorn and Chee don't drive around in a squad car trading wry witticisms. Usually, they attack a case from two different pieces of geography. They watch each other from a distance, warily, and their mutual admiration is reluctant, as often as not.

Jim Chee is young and savvy, but he has an educated affection for the Navajo way, with its religious rites and mythology. He also tends to be a loner on the job.

Joe Leaphorn, on the other hand, is a veteran cop thinking about retirement. He's sharp, experienced, and wise to the system, but he believes in playing by the rules. And he could care less about traditional religion.

Hillerman has lived near Native American cultures for most of his life. What gives his stories their unique power to entertain and, yes, educate, is his ability to hand the reader a crackerjack whodunit blended with an insider's view of the traditional Navajo culture as it struggles to exist in a world dominated by the biligaana (white people).

In ``Coyote Waits,'' Jim Chee gets a radio message from his colleague Officer Delbert Nez, saying that Nez is about to apprehend a vandal he's been after for weeks. Nez laughs, then the radio signal breaks up, a common occurrence. Chee decides there's no need to assist, but later, when he can't raise Nez on his car radio, he races to see what's happened. He finds his fellow officer's car in flames and Nez dead, shot in the chest point-blank. And the grim game is afoot.

The story line has more twists, turns, and bumps than one of the many back-country roads on the Navajo reservation. Chee discovers a suspect minutes after he finds the body, but the suspect lives 200 miles away and doesn't own a car. Leaphorn discovers his own clues and begins to snoop around from a completely different direction. The two trails converge at a huge rock outcropping in the middle of the desert where (can it be?) Butch Cassidy may have been murdered many years before.

Hillerman's characters are not just there to provide dialogue for a story that dances along to a clever ending. Leaphorn and Chee each have a past they remember, a present they puzzle over, and a future they anticipate with mixed feelings. Joe Leaphorn's beloved wife, Emma, died a few novels back, and he thinks about her. A place reminds Leaphorn of the time he and Emma visited there together. Does a new romantic interest dawn in Leaphorn's life as ``Coyote Waits'' comes to its conclusion?

Chee went through a confusing and unsuccessful romance with a white woman, but never far from view has been Janet Pete, a Navajo lawyer not raised on the reservation, as Chee was. In ``Coyote Waits,'' Janet Pete's client is Chee's prime suspect - an ancient Navajo man blinded the night of the crime by dilhil, ``dark water'' (whiskey).

Hillerman portrays his characters more through their thoughts and actions than with descriptions of how they look. His technique is different, however, when he characterizes the world the Navajos inhabit.

Thus: ``A plaster-and-stone building behind the main post has been partially burned and left unrepaired, the shed where hay was stored leaned to the left. Even the porch seemed to have sagged under the weight of age and loneliness.''[pp. 65-66] One disappointment: I counted 38 mentions of real brand names in this novel's 282 pages, and it was irritating. Is something fishy going on in the publishing business?

More important, however, Hillerman is a master of what I call ``the `yikes!' factor.'' Often, he concludes a chapter with an understated remark that spurred me, exclaiming ``Yikes!'' toward the next chapter.

Tony Hillerman is a mystery writer extraordinaire, and in ``Coyote Waits,'' he's at his best.

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