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Mayhem on the malpais

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Anne Hillerman has rolled out the anticipated third book in her popular Leaphorn-Chee-Manuelito mystery series.

The new release, “Cave of Bones,” spotlights Bernadette Manuelito, a Navajo Tribal police officer. The novel’s main thread is set on and near the Malpais, the lava wilderness just south of Grants. The Malpais isn’t reservation land, though it’s not far from the Navajo Ramah chapter.

Manuelito accepts an invitation to give a talk to teenage girls – some at-risk, some in need of a confidence boost – with a privately-run outdoor program camping in the Malpais.

Manuelito’s planned talk is derailed by the delayed return from an overnight solo camp-out of Annie Rainsong, a troubled, though tough Navajo teen, and a police search for the disappeared Domingo Cruz, a Navajo who’s an official of the Wings and Roots outdoor program.

Annie is emotionally upset by what seems to be ancient human bones she encounters in a cave.

The lengthy search for Cruz and Annie’s overnight experience explodes in multiple plot directions involving multiple characters swirling around such issues as professional jealousy, adults behaving badly, alleged misuse of program funds and desecration of ancient Indian burial sites.

Women have the more dominant roles in the main thread of the novel.

Besides the assertive Manuelito and young Annie, there’s Annie’s mother, Elsbeth Walker, a hard-driving Navajo Nation councilor; Rose Cooper, the Wings and Roots director; assistant director Lacy Mayfair; Merilee Cruz, Dom’s twin sister and a member of the program’s board of directors; and the rough-speaking new FBI agent Sage Johnson.

Two of the male characters in the main story – a state policeman and a park ranger at El Morro National Monument – may be illegally excavating and selling Indian artifacts. In the subplot, Navajo Sgt. Chee, Manuelito’s husband, is in Santa Fe for training. While there he looks in on whether Manuelito’s kid sister, who’s taking a short art course, is behaving herself and checks on the whereabouts of George Curley, a Navajo married to a Tesuque Pueblo woman. Curley hasn’t been heard from in weeks. His wife and mother are worried. Curley’s disappearance eventually loops back to the main story line. (And Manuelito’s mom is occasionally heard expressing maternal concern for her daughters who are absent from the rez.)

What makes Hillerman’s novels special are the informed references to Navajo kinship and explanations of Navajo mythology.

Here is an example from “Cave of Bones”: “Bernie knew El Malpais as Yeiitssoh Bidil Niniyeezhi, Navajo that translated to something like ‘Where Big God’s Blood Coagulated.’ The name came from one of the legendary adventures of the Hero Twins as they made the world safe for the People.”

Hillerman writes that three pueblos in the region (Laguna, Acoma and Zuni) “had their own names and stories for the supernatural way in which this landscape came to be …”

The book describes the Malpais as a 40-mile long “river of molten stone” that produced “a landscape of craters, cones, lava falls and ice caves.”

Joe Leaphorn, a respected semi-retired Navajo police lieutenant, makes a few cameo appearances in “Cave of Bones.”

Hillerman said in a phone interview that for her next novel she’s planning to “bring Joe back and get him on the job. He’ll be a more active participant in the story. I’m feeling more confident to write about him. He’s the first (of these three Navajo cops) my dad wrote about.”

Her father is the late Tony Hillerman.