Like father, like daughter.
With “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” Santa Fe’s Anne Hillerman continues the literary tradition of her father, the late Tony Hillerman. He was the author of a long and bestselling series of mysteries set on the Navajo reservation.
Many of Hillerman’s mysteries featured Navajo policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.
Anne Hillerman’s satisfying debut novel is subtitled “A Leaphorn & Chee Novel” but it’s mostly centered on Chee and his wife, Navajo policewoman Bernadette Manuelito.
The reason for this character shift comes swiftly and early in the story.
The respected Leaphorn, who has been retired, is leaving a morning coffee chat with police officers at the Navajo Inn in Window Rock, Ariz.
Walking to his car Leaphorn is shot. Who would want to kill him? Is it someone Leaphorn had sent to prison? Someone with a grudge?
Manuelito witnesses the shooting, but doesn’t see the shooter’s face, which is covered by a hoodie. Leaphorn is hospitalized.
Chee is assigned to lead the investigation into the shooting. Manuelito has a pivotal role in it – she actually saves the day – though superiors remind her she’s not officially working the case.
The investigation moves through a number of diversions, dead ends and subplots. One is a twisting subplot about trying to trace the two-door blue sedan the shooter was driving. It leads to the no-nonsense Navajo woman who owns it, and then moves on to those who regularly borrow the vehicle, including her studious son, and the son’s friend.
With Leaphorn hospitalized in Santa Fe that gives Chee and Manuelito a chance to check on him and look into the operations and personnel of a private museum in Santa Fe, the American Indian Resource Center that’s about to receive a major donation of Native American artifacts. Leaphorn was doing contract work for the museum.
Deep into the novel, a murder occurs at Chaco Canyon. It might be related to the Leaphorn shooting.
Tony Hillerman relied on extended, tightly written narrative to describe landscape and action that furthered the plots of his mysteries.
Anne Hillerman’s novel delivers a more balanced approach between narrative and dialogue. She is good at both.
But her approach requires her own voice, her own tone, one that is more detailed in police procedure and in familial relationships. There are engaging conversations between Manuelito and Chee, Manuelito and her difficult sister and Manuelito and their mother.
Tony Hillerman was famous for weaving into his novels explanations of Navajo religious traditions. His daughter has brought in that element, too.
The book’s title, for example, comes from an unlikely moment.
Manuelito and another cop are in Leaphorn’s home to take with them Leaphorn’s old computer. Maybe there’s something helpful stored in it.
Manuelito looks at the dark, dusty space behind the computer desk with its nest of cords. That made her think of Spider Woman.
Spider Woman, the book states, is the Holy Person who taught the Navajo to weave and gave the Hero Twins the weapons to begin their quest to find their father the Sun and rid the world of monsters.
Manuelito thinks that a woman must have had a hand in entwining the power cords, and it reminded her of a comment her mother, a weaver, would sometimes make.
Her mother joked about Spider Woman’s daughter when she had to redo a section of a rug, an example that she “helps with life’s unexpected complications.”