Tony Hillerman used to be one of my favorite authors, but he did that thing a lot of authors do with long-running series: said he was done writing Leaphorn/Chee mysteries, but then kept writing them. After the stinker that was The Sinister Pig
, I was almost afraid to read Skeleton Man
, since it's the next to last book Hillerman wrote before he died, and I'd rather remember Hillerman in his glory days, when Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee were still fresh and sharp and coming at their Navajo ways from two different viewpoints: Leaphorn the veteran, the pragmatic realist who has no patience for superstitions, and Chee the rookie, the traditional Navajo who wants to be a cop and a medicine man.Skeleton Man
was better than The Sinister Pig
, but it brought nothing new to the series or the characters. I mean, it also does what all long-running detective series do and start to become as much about the characters' personal lives as whatever case they are working on this book. Chee is now engaged to Bernadette Manuelito, who was first introduced several books ago as a love interest for Chee, who has been notoriously unlucky in love since he first appeared way back in the early books to share the spotlight with Leaphorn. But that's about all this book is: an update on Bernie and Chee.
The actual plot involves a plane crash fifty years ago that left a suitcase full of diamonds handcuffed to a dead man's wrist at the bottom of a canyon in the reservation. Now, fifty years later, someone wants those diamonds, and the dead man's daughter wants his arm so she can use DNA testing to prove he was her father. We get a repeat of the previous book in that basically you've got a rich villain sending a hired thug to do his dirty work, so it's another white dude showing up to cause trouble.
The entire story is framed as Joe Leaphorn ("the legendary Leaphorn" as he is referred to umpteen times) telling the story to his old fart buddies around coffee - this is the pretext to even get him involved in the book at all. There is a little bit of interaction with some Hopi Indians (hence the double-meaning of the title; there is a very
loose connection to a Hopi myth), and the climax is resolved by an act of nature.
This is really just a short story that Hillerman padded out to (barely) novel length.
I can only recommend Skeleton Man
for true Hillerman fans who just want to finish the series. There won't be any more Chee/Leaphorn novels, after all. But the earlier books in the series are well worth reading; start with The Blessing Way