A Journalist's Archive

A Thief of Time
Tony Hillerman
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee stalk criminals through the arroyos of the "Four Corners" of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, in a series of mystery novels brilliantly written by Tony Hillerman.  He developed two Navajo tribal policeman characters that give readers an insight to the indigenous cultures that occupy the territory, as Hillerman blends Navajo and Hopi traditions into his mysteries.

          "A Thief in Time" goes a step further, taking the reader into the world of the Anasazi, a culture which disappeared from the southwest around 1280 A.D.  The Four Corners region contains thousands of their abandoned sites, complete with cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and their famous pottery.  Empty dwellings laden with artifacts beg the questions, "What happened to the Anasazi, why did they leave, where did they go?

          Anthropologists and archeologists scramble over the southwest trying to answer these questions; studying, photographing, measuring and dating physical evidence in an attempt to understand the bygone culture.  The plot for a "Thief in Time" is based on this archeological work, and Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico with its rugged, isolated, and magnificent scenery is the perfect setting for the mystery.       

          He opens the story with a ceramic specialist, Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, called  Ellie by her co-workers, sneaking off on a secret dig after informing friends she is heading to Farmington, New Mexico for a bit of civilization.  

          Hillerman's imagery is equal to the environment he is describing.  The reader feels the chill in the desert night air, hears the screech owls and barking coyotes, and can taste the dust in the air.  The desert southwest is a raw environment where modern man is only a guest. Ellie realizes this as she walks along a dry creek bed, thinking to herself "the nearest human is twenty miles away, as the crow flies."

          But the reader knows better.  Tension builds as she uses hand and foot holds to pull herself up a sandstone cliff to reach a narrow Anasazi shelter nicknamed Chicken Condo.  She curses as she discovers fragments of bones littering the ground and a freshly dug hole.  Next she sees four human lower jaw bones, neatly placed in a row on a slab of sandstone.

           That is nothing compared to the next bizarre sight she encounters. Her flashlight catches the reflection of small eyes belonging to dozens of frogs just out of reach of a small pool of water.  Expecting them to dive into the pool, she is startled to discover they jump, only to stop abruptly a few inches short of the water.  Looking closer she realizes they have been tethered to a twig with threads from a yucca plant.  The next sound she hears doesn't come from natural sources, unless a song bird has learned how to whistle "Hey, Jude."

          The story continues with Lt. Joe Leaphorn reluctantly accompanying Thatcher, a Bureau of Land Management detective, on a drive from his home in Window Rock out to Chaco Culture National Historic Park.  Leaphorn's wife recently died, and Thatcher hopes the ride will pull Leaphorn out of his grief, at least for a little while.  Thatcher received an anonymous call accusing one Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal of being a "Thief of Time," a pot hunter, digging up Indians pots for sale on the black market.  Some, especially the decorative Anasazi ones, fetch thousands of dollars from collectors.  Of course getting caught means both huge fines and jail time for the thief.

          When they arrive at Chaco, they are greeted by Park Service Superintendent, Bob Luna.  He asks if this is about Ellie, and looks puzzled when Thatcher pulls the search warrant from his jacket pocket.  Luna scoffs at the theft accusation against Ellie, and informs Thatcher that she is missing.  He called the sheriff in Farmington two weeks ago but no one has seen her since, and it now appears the local law enforcement has ignored her disappearance. 

          The investigation begins.  Leaphorn questions Maxie Davis and Elliot, two anthropologists that worked closely with Ellie.   But they only relate her story about needing to get away from Chaco for a while.   Leaphorn searches her home, finding the moldy remains of a meal she was preparing for a dinner guest in her refrigerator.  Her day calendar reads: Oct. 13, "Do It!" Oct. 14, "see H. Houk," Oct 16, "Lehman!!!"   

          Then there's Slick Nakai, a Navajo turned born-again preacher, who knows Ellie. She often came to him to buy pots he received from his congregation in lieu of dollars in the collection plate. Leaphorn also questions an odd hermit, Dr. Bo Arnold, a biologist who studies lichen.

          As in most mystery novels, a sub-plot develops. Jim Chee, a young Navajo policeman, investigates the theft of a trailer and backhoe from the Navajo Tribal Motor Pool.  This leads him to discover two murders, a young Navajo who worked as an assistant for Maxie Davis, and Joe Nails, a known pot-hunter. Two more deaths will occur before the mystery is solved.

          Could these deaths be connected to Ellie's disappearance?  Why did she set out on a secretive hike in the middle of the night?  Readers can only speculate until they reach the end of the story.

          Grab the book, read "A Thief of Time," and you will be back in the bookstore looking for more Tony Hillerman mysteries. 

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2006 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
All Rights Reserved