Crime and custom in Hillerman country

September 15, 1993|By George L. Scheper | George L. Scheper,Contributing Writer


Title: "Sacred Clowns"

Author: Tony Hillerman

Publisher: HarperCollins

-! Length, price: 305 pages, $23

It is fitting that Tony Hillerman's long-awaited 11th Navajo mystery should be published during this United Nations-designated "Year of Indigenous Peoples."

Mr. Hillerman never substitutes popularized anthropology or politically correct ideology for the primary business of his craft -- spinning a well-braided, spell-binding yarn. Nevertheless, as everyone knows, what draws the huge audience that puts this New Mexico-based former newspaperman in a class by himself (an extraordinary first run of 400,000 copies for "Sacred Clowns") is not the ingenuities of his whodunit puzzles, but the literary authenticity and power of the landscapes and the Native American lifeways of the Southwest evoked by his regional thrillers.

The Four Corners region in which Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet, and in particular the Navajo reservation that encompasses an area the size of New England, is Mr. Hillerman's Yoknapatawpha County, by now so identified with him that his recent coffee-table book on the region was titled, simply, "Hillerman Country." At the same time, it is Mr. Hillerman's fundamental authorial modesty and his genuine deference to Native American sensibilities that have earned him perhaps the most cherished among his many awards: his designation as "Special Friend" by the Navajo nation.

The Navajo are focal for Mr. Hillerman because his two series detectives are members of the Navajo Tribal Police, and each by now has acquired fully evolved characterizations: the older, recently widowed Joe Leaphorn, university-educated, more accommodated to the Bilagaana (white) world; and the younger, more ethnically self-conscious Jim Chee, torn between his roles as a modern policeman and as a hataalii, or Navajo shaman.

The strength of Mr. Hillerman's series is that it really matters that his detectives are Navajos, because the crimes and the methods of solution in these novels have actually to do with Navajo history, mores and lifeways. Even the telling of the tales has this fundamentally "Navajo" quality; as Jim Chee explains a case to a friend: "I'm going to answer that the Navajo way . . . That means you have to be patient, because it's very roundabout. It's all about culture."

Equally impressive, however, is that Mr. Hillerman does not stereotype his Native American characters -- they are not all alike, and he is careful to distinguish individual, and tribal, differences, as when his story-telling shifts to the Zuni (in "Dance Hall of the Dead"), or to the Hopi (in "The Dark Wind") or, as here in "Sacred Clowns," to Tano, a fictional Pueblo community. In such situations, the Navajo detectives are themselves outsiders to a degree, and so here we don't just have a replay of the old white-vs.-Indian conflict, for the Bilagaana are just another ingredient in the great multicultural bouillabaisse of the American Southwest.

The central problem in "Sacred Clowns" concerns the murder of one of the Tano koshare, or "sacred clowns" -- kachina dancers whose specialty is, through mime and humor, to criticize, warn and advise tribal leaders, with a freedom akin to that of the medieval court jester or the West Indian calypso singer. As a tribal elder explains:

"To outsiders they look like clowns and what they do looks like clowning. Like foolishness. But it is more than that. The koshare have another role. I guess you could say they are our ethical police. It's their job to remind us when we drift away from the way that was taught us. They show us how far short we humans are of the perfection of the spirits."

But, as always, Mr. Hillerman's is a braided plot, and among other issues is the seemingly unrelated murder of a gay white shop teacher in a Catholic Indian Mission. In his own devotion to a life of Franciscan simplicity, he was also one of "God's fools," another "sacred clown."

The story is given a very contemporary and topical cast, including references to environmental protests against nuclear-waste dumping on the reservation (favored, however, by certain tribal council leaders, for economic reasons) and against "stone-washed" jeans because the perlite used in the process comes from strip mining.

But in truth there is nothing more old-fashioned than a Hillerman mystery, whose narration is as modest and chaste and good-hearted as anything from the pen of Dorothy Sayers, Michael Innes or G. K. Chesterton. It is, in fact, the source of his drawing power (high school English teachers recently selected him as their favorite writer of detective fiction, by a margin of 10 to 1!) that a mystery by Tony Hillerman is driven not by "sexdrugs&rocknroll" but by the power of the vast stony landscapes and dramatic weather and sky-scapes of New Mexico, and by the tremendous natural religiosity and social cohesion of its indigenous peoples.

But beyond this lovingly observed topography and indigenous folk culture, Mr. Hillerman's novels inject fresh urgency to the age-old questions about good and evil that lie at the heart of all detective fiction, here reinterpreted in terms of the Navajo concept of hozho (harmonic beauty or attunement), and the sharp differences between Bilagaana retributive justice and the Navajo ideal of healing as the most meaningful response to crime. These issues are, if anything, more richly realized than ever before in his latest novel, as Mr. Hillerman, working within his fruitful formula, proves he is still at the top of his form.

(Dr. Scheper is professor of Humanities at Essex Community College. He is author of a book on Michael Innes, and is currently writing a book on Tony Hillerman.)

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