A Journalist's Archive

Spider Woman’s Daughter
Anne Hillerman
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          “Spider Woman’s Daughter” opens with a truly unexpected bang!
          It was their favorite gathering spot, the Navajo Inn in Window Rock, Arizona. Retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn is telling an interesting tale about a ghost from his past. “A woman. First, she reminds me that I saved her life. Then says she wants me to do her a favor…” The jovial part of the weekly Navajo Police Officers’ breakfast ends as Capt. Howard Largo barks, “Okay, folks, let’s get down to business.”
          Just then Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito’s cell phone began to vibrate. Glancing down, she notices the call is from her husband, Sgt. Jim Chee, who is working out of the Shiprock station.“Gotta take this,” she said, as she retreated to the lobby. Looking out the window, she watches the nightmare unfold. A blue sedan, a running figure clad in a hoodie, an extended arm, and a sound Bernie knew meant certain death for someone dear to her. Rushing to the victim, who is now slumped against a pickup truck, she reaches down and feels for a pulse. As the blood pools on the street, she vows in Navajo; “I promise I’ll find out why this happened and who did this to you.”
          Tony Hillerman fans know he created a series of Navajo mysteries featuring Leaphorn and Chee. But alas, Hillerman died in 2008. As a rule, I shun books wherein another writer resurrects the characters of a famous dearly-departed author. The practice fits my definition of plagiarism; and most copycat efforts fail because famous authors have a unique combination of skill and style that is impossible to mimic.
          But oh how I miss traveling through Navajo country with Chee and Leaphorn! So I had to try “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” by Anne Hillerman, and found it to be a wonderful exception to my rule. As the daughter of Tony Hillerman, she certainly has the legal right to breathe new life into his characters. But I doubt she would have attempted such a daunting task without a number of successful non-fiction books already under her belt. In the Acknowledgments, Anne said writing “Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn,” laid the foundation for “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” her first venture into the world of fiction.
          Now back to the mystery. Since Bernie is the only eyewitness to the shooting, Captain Largo orders her not to have anything to do with the investigation, even though he knows Bernie and Chee will stop at nothing to find the shooter. Thanks to Bernie’s description of the sedan, the car is quickly spotted at Bashas’ grocery store. Unfortunately the owner, Gloria Benally, lends the vehicle to half the town, which doesn’t help to narrow the list of suspects. Her 19 year old son, Jackson, parked it in front of the market earlier that morning. Then his friend Leonard Nez, (AKA Lizard), gave him a ride to the University of New Mexico in Gallop.
          Or at least that’s what Mrs. Benally is saying. But then why did an on-campus search reveal that Jackson hadn’t attended classes that morning? And where is Nez? While those two move to the top of the suspect list, Bernie believes the shooting was an act of revenge, a behavioral trait more characteristic of a “Bilagaana” (Caucasian) than a Navajo.
          I have always loved the “sense of place” and respect for the Native American cultures that Hillerman infused into all of his novels. Through fiction, he educated the public about the indigenous cultures who have occupied the Four Corners for thousands of years. Ann continues that practice, her vivid descriptions of the landscape and weather is captivating. The heat, clinging dust, and vastness of the Southwest become real as Bernie and Chee follow the clues from Window Rock to Santa Fe. You’ll feel as if you are riding beside them in their pickup on the washboard road leading to Chaco Canyon. Watch out for the elk!
          Then Chee’s healing “sing,” for the shooting victim who is barely clinging to life in a Santa Fe hospital, illustrates the important role ancient practices still play in Navajo society. Through Bernie’s mother, a weaver now ravaged by age, we see a woman who still respects the fine weaving and pottery created by her ancestors. Her casual observations are key to solving this crime. Note, too, how a neighbor cares for the elderly woman, and the importance of the extended family in the culture.
          But this is no romanticized version of Navajo life. Bernie’s sister, Darleen, is a high-school dropout who is quickly becoming an alcoholic. A lack of education, substance abuse, and few employment prospects are common problems for many Native American teenagers. Darleen is hanging around with the wrong crowd, drinking and driving, and sponging off her mother.
          Hoping to put the mystery and family problems out of their minds for a few hours, Bernie and Chee take a spontaneous trip to Chaco Canyon. The visit only compounds the mystery when a tip they receive leads to the discovery of a body in a crevasse below Pueblo Alto. Now there appears to be some skullduggery concerning a rare collection of Chaco cylindrical jars. Is this a red herring or the connection between both crimes?
          One big difference readers will notice between Tony and Ann Hillerman’s writing shouldn’t be too surprising. This mystery definitely has a feminine voice and perspective to it. No, there are no dramatic love scenes, but Bernie certainly received a promotion from a minor to a major character. And it’s about time! But male readers need not worry, the essence of Leaphorn and Chee lives on in “Spider Woman’s Daughter.”

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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