The tension ratchets up early and remains high throughout Anne Hillerman’s well-crafted new mystery “The Sacred Bridge.”
In the first chapter an unnamed young Navajo man uneasily recalls that as a boy his brother saved him from drowning in Lake Powell, which straddles Arizona and Utah. He is now walking gingerly along the slick sandstone edge of the same lake, heading back to his campsite and to a boat dock.
Suddenly, behind him, he hears “a whooshing noise, then a heavy thunk against the back of his head.” He falls forward into lake and doesn’t make it back to his tent.
Navajo police Sgt. Jim Chee finds the body of the young man, later identified as Curtis Walker, floating in the water. His death is initially thought to be a drowning.
A long way from his station in Shiprock, Chee is on break at Lake Powell when he’s enlisted to help in the investigation of Curtis’ death, reclassified as a murder.
Chee is busy. He’s reconsidering his future in law enforcement. He’s searching for a cave that may be home to ancient sand paintings. His friend and mentor, the legendary Lt. Joe Leaphorn, tipped him off to the existence of the possible art trove Leaphorn had discovered decades ago.
Chee is seeking to pay homage to Rainbow Bridge, a national monument that’s a famous rock formation at the lake. The bridge is sacred to Navajos.
Hillerman shows Chee seeing a faded sign for the bridge, then the bridge itself: “He breathed in its majesty as he approached. … He admired the height of the graceful arch – roughly as tall as the Statue of Liberty. … He paused in gratitude, sang his prayer and blessed the spot and the day with sacred cornmeal.”
Hillerman said in a phone interview she loves writing about that area’s beautiful landscape, not just Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge and Glen Canyon, and telling a bit of the history of the enormous lake, the damming of it.
Throughout the novel, Hillerman smoothly transitions from narrative to brief, vivid landscape descriptions and back. Here’s an example of one such description while Chee is interviewing a woman about Curtis. “… They looked out at the lake, shimmering navy-blue water in the distance against a panorama of tan and red desert cliffs, with the endless sky arching over it all.”
Hillerman introduces a handful of characters who may have had reason to dispatch Curtis. One is Robert Azul, the owner of an area tour company where Curtis works with Robert’s wife, Ramona. She and Curtis may have been more than coworkers and good friends, and their close relationship may have fed Robert to seek revenge.
Another potential suspect is Paul Hendrix, the adult son of veteran, respected archaeologist Pete Hendrix, who for years treated Curtis as an adopted son. Pete and Curtis’ enduring friendship may have bred anger in Paul.
A third person of interest is Brian Chinchili. He slashed the tires on Curtis’ vehicle and may have been jealous of Curtis’ acquaintanceship with a young woman named Wanda whom Chinchili considers his girlfriend.
A second, though equally taut, storyline in the novel involves Navajo policewoman Bernadette Manuelito, Chee’s wife.
Manuelito witnesses the fatal hit-and-run of an Asian man. His death may be tied to a hemp farm on the Navajo Nation. In what is probably her most dangerous assignment in the series, Manuelito goes undercover to see if the farm is an illicit marijuana growing operation run by criminals. That triggers a chase scene – one of the most thrilling Hillerman has ever written – in which Manuelito tries to escape the farm and save her Mama from harm.
Hillerman first thought of Rainbow Bridge as the sacred arch for the title, though other “bridges” occurred to her. “There’s the bridge of stories that families share. And the bridge when (Manuelito’s sister) Darleen goes back to her family” and the bridge when Manuelito comes back after being undercover,” she said.
“The Sacred Bridge” is the seventh novel in Hillerman’s popular Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series. The author promised that the sage Leaphorn, whose presence is diminished here, will always have some sort of mentorship role to Chee and Manuelito.
Working on the novel in forced concentration during the pandemic helped the author refine her writing and her thinking. “I’m grateful for that,” she said.