You know how actors and people in some other fields get "lifetime achievement awards," and sometimes they get an Oscar not so much for the movie for which they are ostensibly getting the Oscar, but because they have been around a long time and everyone loves them and they're probably not gonna turn in any more real Oscar-winning performances, so let 'em have the shiny gold dude now?
That's kind of why I'm giving The Shape Shifter
I first encountered Tony Hillerman as a freshman in college. I took an elective cultural anthropology course, just because, and one of the assigned books was The Blessing Way
. This was the first of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries, starring Navajo police detective Joe Leaphorn, who would someday become the "legendary Leaphorn."
My cultural anthropology professor assigned it because like most American anthropologists he had a thing for the Navajo (an old Navajo joke is that a Navajo family consists of a grandmother, her daughters' families, and an anthropologist), and The Blessing Way
not only included a lot of information about the Navajo, but made Navajo traditions an essential part of the plot: Leaphorn's ability to solve the central murder mystery in the book revolved around his ability to interpret Navajo beliefs and behavior.
I loved the book, though I did not end up majoring in anthropology, and over the next 25+ years, I read every one of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries. Usually I bought them in hardcover. I have always (until recently) been almost exclusively a SF & fantasy reader, with the occasional foray into mystery novels, but Hillerman remained one of my favorite authors, year after year. It wasn't so much the mysteries that enthralled me, but the way he wrote such believable and interesting Navajo characters. I became familiar with Shiprock, Tuba City, Window Rock, and the Four Corners region and the mesas and deserts and arroyos of the Southwest as if I had been there, though I've never done more than drive through the area. And of course, Joe Leaphorn and the growing cast of characters became like old friends.
Tony Hillerman was not himself a Native American. Nowadays, white authors writing other cultures frequently get themselves in trouble; even if they do their research and manage not to be offensive, cultural appropriation is still becoming quite a rankling issue. But Hillerman was named a Special Friend of the Dineh by the Navajo Tribe; he always wrote respectfully and with unimpeachable verisimilitude about his Navajo characters (and Hopi and Zuni and other tribes as well).
He also obscured locations in his books that were based on real places, to prevent people from looking for the sites he described. This wasn't an idle precaution - apparently tons of tourists really visit the Four Corners area to see "Hillerman country," and the Navajo Tribal Police Station in Window Rock gets phone calls from people actually wanting to talk to Lieutenant Leaphorn or Sergeant Chee.
Joe Leaphorn is a practical man, college-educated, and while respectful of his Navajo roots, something of a skeptic. His wife Emma was a traditional Navajo, and he always took her wishes seriously, but Leaphorn himself saw superstition and some of the old tribal ways as hindrances and sources of trouble. As he said when asked whether he believed in witches, "I believe in people who believe in witches." Leaphorn would map out clues and do legwork (which was a lot
of legwork across the entire Navajo Nation) and eventually his detective's instincts and Navajo intuition would solve the case, only occasionally with any guns being fired.
In the fourth book in the series, People of Darkness
, Hillerman introduced Officer Jim Chee, a younger member of the Tribal Police who would become Leaphorn's colleague and partner and eventual friend, though not without some tension. Chee was a traditional Navajo, also college educated, but unlike Leaphorn, he truly believed in the Navajo Way, and spent much of the series studying to become a shaman and trying to reconcile that with also being a policeman. Leaphorn was not initially impressed by Chee's attempt to navigate these two often-contradictory paths, and did not think being a medicine man was compatible with being a cop. One of the most poignant points in the entire series was when Leaphorn, after a particularly grueling case, asked Chee to perform a Blessing Way ceremony for him, which was kind of like a lapsed Catholic asking a priest for confession. Leaphorn, the grizzled old lieutenant, was finally expressing his respect and friendship of the younger man.
Years go by. Leaphorn "retires" but never stays out of cases. Chee would eventually become Sergeant and then Lieutenant. Chee's romantic life would feature significantly in many of the books. When we first meet him, he is dating a white schoolteacher named Mary Landon, in a long-distance relationship that will last for several books. But Mary is never going to be happy living on the Rez with Chee, and Chee has no desire to go become her domesticated Indian husband. When that relationship ends, he begins dating Janet Pete, a half-white, half-Navajo lawyer. Beautiful, intelligent, and ambitious, she's a fine gal and Chee is very much in love with her. He even gets to proposing to her. But Janet wants Chee to join her in Washington, D.C., and even pulls strings to get him a slot in the FBI. The problem is, she's unwilling to accept that Chee doesn't want
to give up his spartan, traditional life as a medicine man and Tribal Police officer. And Janet Pete is not a Reservation girl, will never be a Reservation girl.
The thirteenth book in the series, The First Eagle
, introduces Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Tribal Police, a Navajo cutie who is destined to be girlfriend #3 for Jim Chee, and really the point at which I thought the series began its decline. Not so much because of Bernadette, who is a perfectly fine character, and Hillerman, to his credit, always treats her (and other female characters) as equal characters who pull their weight in the story and aren't just damsels in distress, love interests, or appendages to the men, even if it is the male characters who occupy center stage most of the time.
Long-running mystery series tend to accumulate cruft; after the first couple of books, they become increasingly less about the mystery du jour
than the ongoing personal dramas of the characters. At first the regular reader enjoys this, wanting to catch up on how Jim Chee and his girlfriend are doing, or how Emma's health is nowadays, but sadly, too many authors begin to use these recurring tropes as shortcuts to reader investment, and Hillerman eventually fell prey to it himself. His last few books were, well, not really very good. This is not to say they were bad
— still quite readable, but there was nothing new in them, the "mysteries" were lukewarm, the involvement of all the regulars often forced and tertiary. The setting was the same old setting and the Navajo elements were pro forma. Really, the stories in the last three books were pretty much just vehicles to move Chee and Manuelito along toward their eventual nuptials. I recall reading some time in the late 90s, I think, that Hillerman was done writing Leaphorn/Chee mysteries. Maybe like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his fans wouldn't let him, or maybe he just loved his characters too much to let go of them after all.
Four of his books were made into movies, all available on Netflix. The Dark Wind
starred Lou Diamond Phillips (Hollywood's "go-to" Indian actor) as Jim Chee.A Thief of Time
, and Coyote Waits
were all PBS Mystery specials.
Anyway, at last we come to this book, the eighteenth and last book in the series. There won't be any more, because Hillerman died in 2008.The Shape Shifter
, to be fair, is better than the preceding two books, The Sinister Pig
and Skeleton Man
, which had me sadly shaking my head at just how much Hillerman the author was phoning it in. But The Shape Shifter
tries very hard to force a bit of Navajo mythology into the story, mostly by allusion; the plot is about an ex-CIA man, a Hmong refugee, and very old cold case that draws the "legendary lieutenant" (in the last half dozen or so books, this phrase will be repeated constantly
in reference to "retired" Lieutenant Leaphorn) out of retirement just like he has been in the last few books. Chee and Manuelito barely figure into the plot at all; Hillerman has Leaphorn call Chee to ask him to do a little bit of legwork for him as an excuse to get the newlyweds peripherally involved. The "mystery" isn't really a mystery, at least not the sort where the author leaves clues to give the reader a chance to figure out what's going on before the climax.
It's enjoyable light reading, but would I honestly recommend The Shape Shifter
to anyone who isn't a Hillerman fan? No. In itself, it is a 3-star book.
But. I've been reading Tony Hillerman for 27 years now. I've just finished the last book he ever wrote or ever will write. And there are not many other series where I can say I've read all 18 books, in sequence. Do I remember all the details of each one, after all these years? No, most of them kind of blur together. But Tony Hillerman, who was a decorated World War II vet, winner of many literary awards and a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and Special Friend of the Dineh, wrote books I've been fans of over half my life. Someday, I may just start over with The Blessing Way
and reread them all again.
So, although my head says The Shape Shifter
should only get 3 stars, in my heart I am giving it a collective rating for all the hours I spent reading about Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, Janet Pete, Cowboy Dashee, Bernadette Manuelito, and many, many others, and traveled with them across the Four Corners. 5 stars, Mr. Hillerman.