On the Trail Again With Hillerman's Navajo Detectives

FIRST-time readers of Tony Hillerman should try one of his other works. His latest book, ``Sacred Clowns,'' is not the best introduction to one of the most original American mystery writers. It is as much a story about human relationships as it is about solving crime through the cultural lens of Southwest Indian traditions and values. Hillerman fans will of course devour it, since it has been three years since his previous mystery, ``Coyote Waits.''

Trademark Hillerman elements are present: A large tribal ceremony complete with a murder in front of hundreds of people but with no witnesses; betrayal by longtime friends; intertribal (Navajo and Sioux) and FBI rivalries; a sacred totem missing thus placing at risk the well-being of a tribe; and Navajo tribal-police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, both troubled by relationships - to each other and to women in their lives - and by their identity as Navajos.

There is more joint police effort between Leaphorn and Chee than in any of Hillerman's previous 11 mysteries. Yet, what should be the strength of the narrative has the opposite effect. It is precisely because of the two men working together so closely that the book bogs down.

Leaphorn is a widower and near retirement. Chee, much younger, is a wanna-be Navajo medicine man and healer. Both men have lost harmony, the central reality of the Navajo people, which Hillerman so authentically explored in previous novels.

Leaphorn still cannot sort out the meaning of his wife's death. He has avoided the metaphysical angst it suggests by losing himself in his work. But his career is drawing to a close.

Chee is torn between a career in law enforcement and following the blessing way of a healer. This is complicated for him because he loves a half-Navajo woman from a clan whose murky ancestry might make his union to her taboo, effectively negating his ever becoming a healer.

``Sacred Clowns'' gives too much effort to analysis of each man's psychological plight, more than is given to solving the two murders central to the book. When the culprits are at last discovered, the resolution seems contrived.

But, that said, a not-quite-up-to-par Hillerman novel is still a must read for any of his devotees. For those encountering Hillerman for the first time, the award-winning ``Talking God'' or an earlier title, ``Listening Woman,'' are better places to start.

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