Hillerman's Mystery Writing Scales the Heights of Fiction

The Fallen Man

By Tony Hillerman


234 pp., $24

With the publication of "The Fallen Man," his 12th in the Leaphorn-Chee detective series, Tony Hillerman's place alongside such great mystery writers as Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is certain. Three reasons make this fact rather than book-review hype.

First, Hillerman is a master of style. His sentences are as lucid, yet subtle, as sunlight in the high desert where Navajo tribal detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee patrol. He creates a vivid, austere sense of place.

Second, Hillerman probes the metaphysical implications of crime, religious taboo, and moral weakness in human nature. His point of view is always compassionate. He taps an innate hunger for justice and harmony.

Third, Hillerman explores misunderstanding and conflict inherent in cross-cultural mores. This more than anything else sets him apart from mystery writers of his generation.

In "The Fallen Man," time and memory weigh heavily on the minds of his characters. Skeletal remains of a mountain climber are found high-up on a ledge on Shiprock mountain. The New Mexico landmark is one of the tribe's most sacred places.

The Dineen (a Navajo word used to describe themselves and meaning "the people") believe Shiprock flew to its present spot millennia ago. The Navajo nation climbed down from its holy ridges and settled in the high desert of Arizona and New Mexico.

No Navajo would desecrate the mountain by climbing it, so whose bones are they? How did they get there? Are they all that's left of an act of trespass? A climbing accident? An act of abandonment and a lonely death? Murder? Suicide?

The bones turn out to be those of an heir to a Colorado ranching and mining empire. He has been missing for 11 years. Joe Leaphorn, now retired from the Navajo tribal police, never solved the case. He seizes the chance to learn what he couldn't more than a decade earlier. His search crosses paths with his former sidekick and successor, Jim Chee.

Leaphorn discovers that the fallen climber, just prior to his disappearance, had married the sister of a man who managed one of his ranches. A fortune in minerals lay beneath its pristine, alpine meadows.

All the components of a Hillerman novel are here: the desert-dry locale, a hidden past, the patterns of flawed lives that at first randomly, and then purposefully intersect to form a tiny, but intense drama played out in the vastness and majesty of the American Southwest.

As in his other novels, beliefs, habits, and customs of the Anglo and Navajo are mutually misunderstood. The psychological divide between whites and Indians can be as deep as any canyon in the Southwest.

One example is the desire of the climber's widow to have his remains cremated and the ashes spread in a mountain meadow. For the Navajo, such an act is unthinkable. It would unleash a ghost-spirit to wander (and haunt) the land forever.

By insightfully and sensitively translating Navajo values into attitudes and motives Anglos and Navajos can both understand, Hillerman presents contrasting ethnic epistemologies. This allows him to bridge cultural sensibilities and grapple with the darker side of human experience. Out of such wrestling he offers glimpses into the singleness of the human heart.

"The Fallen Man," ends in a quintessentially Hillerman manner. It satisfies the human hunger for justice. The ancient Greeks called this stasis. The Navajo call it harmony. Great literature can do no better.

*Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor.

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