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BOOK REVIEW: Retired Navajo Cop Joe Leaphorn is (Mostly) on His Own Solving a Cold Case File in ‘The Shape Shifter’

Posted by kinchendavid on November 21, 2006

By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV  – An intriguing letter from a retired cop draws retired Navajo Tribal Police Officer Lt. Joe Leaphorn back into the crime-solving game in Tony Hillerman’s 18th Leaphorn/Chee procedural “The Shape Shifter” (HarperCollins, 288 pages, $26.95). As a big fan of Hillerman’s who has been to the area in question on a number of occasions, I was delighted to see the return of Leaphorn (his last appearance was in 2004’s “Skeleton Man”).

In his letter from Flagstaff, Arizona to Joe in Shiprock, NM — the Navajo Reservation sprawls over Arizona, New Mexico and Utah in the Four Corners area where the three states – and Colorado — come together – Melvin Bork includes a photo from a glossy lifestyle magazine showing a one-of-a-kind Navajo tale-telling rug that everybody believes had been destroyed in a trading post fire years before.

Leaphorn is often called on, even in retirement, to help solve crimes – this was the case in “Skeleton Man” — but this one is special since it involves an elderly Navajo woman, two buckets of pinyon tree sap that may have a connection with the fire, the missing rug and a mysterious rich man named Jason Delos, living in an estate on the foothills north of Flagstaff who may or may not possess the rug. Joe Leaphorn was a young cop when the pinyon tree sap was stolen and he never found the thief, much to the disgust of the elderly lady, who is still alive. The sap is used by Navajo craft people to waterproof their woven baskets.

Leaphorn, a widower bored with retirement, hops in his pickup and scouts out the territory with a cop he knows in Flagstaff, Sgt. Kelly Garcia, with the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department, before going on to visit Bork. He then gets a call from Mrs. Grace Bork, saying that her husband has gone missing on his way to talk to Delos or returning from a visit to him.

Sgt. Jim Chee, Leaphorn’s protégé, has just returned from his Hawaii honeymoon after marrying Bernadette Manuelito, also a member of the tribal police force. Leaphorn is a little hesitant about enlisting the aid of the newly weds, but Bernadette is eager to get back to work and she and Chee make some official phone calls for their old boss.

Is Jason Delos the “shape shifter” in this procedural which takes us on a tour of the Four Corners area, much of it on “Diné Bikéyah,” or Navajoland, which covers 27,000 square miles, bigger than West Virginia and 9 other states? In Navajo lore, a “shape shifter” or “skinwalker” is a creature who can change shape, gender or species to deceive his enemies or those pursuing him. It’s a common theme in other cultures (see web site reference at the end of this review).

Leaphorn visits Delos to check out the rug and to find out what happened to his friend Melvin Bork, another Western “country cop” he met at the FBI Academy in Virginia and who after his retirement as a cop became a private investigator in Flagstaff, the metropolis of northern Arizona. Investment banker Delos has a young manservant named Tommy Vang, a Hmong refugee from Laos whom Delos, supposedly a CIA agent, rescued. The Hmong are indigenous peoples who’ve been hiding from the Vietnamese and Lao military ever since they helped the American forces in what has been called the “secret war” in Indochina in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them have moved to the U.S., especially to Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Since the plot is involved and vital to the story, I will go no further, other than to say that Joe Leaphorn combines the best of his Dineh (Navajo) heritage, as well as modern detection skills. Plus he’s always ready for a good cup of coffee – a man after my own heart! On a trip to California a few years ago via Interstate 40, I stopped for a coffee and a burger at a fast-food restaurant in Winslow, AZ (yes, the same town made famous in the Eagles’ song “Take It Easy”!). In the parking lot was a Dodge Ramcharger, I believe (it could have been a Ford Bronco) emblazoned with the lettering “Navajo Tribal Police.” Maybe it was Joe, enjoying a cup of coffee. At least I’d like to think so!

Hillerman, an Albuquerque, NM resident, is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America and has received its top awards, the Edgar and Grand Master. He’s been honored by the Navajo Nation, receiving its Special Friend Award. Nobody writes about the Southwest better than Tony Hillerman and he’s at the peak of his form in “The Shape Shifter.” If you’re new to the Leaphorn/Chee novels, this is a great introduction. If you’re one of those who say they can’t stand detective novels, read it and find out how it’s a “shape shifter” of a novel, transcending the genre while enriching it.

Shape Shifting in various cultures, fiction, etc: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shapeshifter#Shapeshifting_in_fiction

Publisher’s web site: http://www.harpercollins.com

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