ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New books by two female Santa Fe authors – one nonfiction, the other a mystery novel – share a strong quality: The authors make the reader feel very much part of the extended family in each book.
That is true for Katie Arnold’s unforgettable memoir, “Running Home.” (Reviewed here March 24.)
And it is true for Anne Hillerman’s fifth and latest police procedural, “The Tale Teller – A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel.”
In Hillerman’s series, set on the Navajo reservation, the family includes husband-and-wife police Sgt. Jim Chee and Officer Bernie Manuelito, and their good friend and former cop, Lt. Joe Leaphorn. The family extends to Bernie’s mom and adult sister Darleen and Leaphorn’s housemate Louisa.
Leaphorn is reintroduced as a major character after slowly recuperating (over the first four books in the series) from a brain injury. Leaphorn, acting as a consultant to the Navajo Museum, is investigating a missing woven dress that may be historically significant to Navajos.
The dress, or biil in Navajo, may have been worn on the infamous Long Walk of 1864. The donated dress was supposedly mailed anonymously to the museum.
The thread also relates to the strange death of a young museum employee that Leaphorn, with Louisa’s help, eventually solves.
“When I first started the series, I was a little intimidated by Joe. He was the very first character my dad created,” Hillerman said in an interview, referring to her late father, mystery writer Tony Hillerman.
“I knew Joe had to be part of the series. I think it took me a while to feel confident enough to write him with the skill I thought he deserved. I also wanted to come up with a big enough crime for him to engage with.”
Her research was prompted by the 150th anniversary of the signing of the treaty that created the Navajo Nation. That got her thinking about the Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo.
Another dominant story thread has several elements that Chee and Manuelito individually probe. One is the suspicious death of a man found off a running trail. The other is more complicated – the theft of treasured jewels in a series of home burglaries, the troubled life of a young woman and the wounding of her grandfather.
As with her previously novels, Hillerman deftly weaves in references to Navajo religious beliefs, intricate ties of family and friendship, and the beauty of reservation mesas and mountains. Even a peach pie with a burnt crust humorously finds its way in the novel.
The book’s title refers to traditional pictorial Navajo weaving. “Dad used that term (Tale Teller) in his last book, ‘The Shape Shifter,’ to describe a rug. … I guess I sort of borrowed that phrase from him,” Hillerman said. That borrowing is a welcome window into her satisfying new book.