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Friday, May 20, 2016

The Wailing Wind. Tony Hillerman. HarperTorch (2002)

A very enjoyable and engaging crime story set in the Navajo Indian Reservation in the US Southwest. Officer Bernadette Manulito of the Navajo Tribal Police finds a dead body in an abandoned truck  and she does not manage the crime scene as carefully as she should have had she finds herself with a problem. Already subject to criticism from the FBI she has some evidence that needs to be returned and explain, a job taken on with some ill grace by her supervisor, Sargent Jim Chee. Jim Chee enlists the aid of the new retired  Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who agrees to help, Leaphorn has an interest in a old case that appears to have connections to the current murder. While Leaphorn is unofficially helping Jim Chee and Bernadette Manulito  he is also hired by the central figure of the previous case to find his missing wife. The threads of the investigation are spun very carefully and they tie up very satisfying and rather bitter conclusion.
This is a very well structured police procedural, the investigation process logically and as the various elements of the two crimes slowly come into light the bleak story that ties everything together emerges into the light. Tony Hillerman's writing is calm and quietly engaging, it hides the sharp edges of the story until they are ready to show themselves, and when they do they are very sharp indeed.
The story really rests on Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manulito and how they work together oscross the investigation. The subdued romantic interest between Bernadette Manulito and Jim Chee is important to the story dynamics and is manage with restrain and humour that lets it flow nicely. Their moment of finally facing the truth is chosen to balance the point when the price that some of the cast have paid for their actions is finally and devastating made clear.
The story setting and context is a dominating character in the story, it is not an overpowering one. The dramatic vastness of the Southwest is carefully evoked, the beauty and the emptiness as well as the sheer hard work making a living. Within this context the importance of Navajo living and thinking is consistent and contrasted with non-Navajo thinking and living. The problems that arise are ones of interpretation and understanding rather then superiority of one way over another, with the considerable exception of the FBI. This agency is seen as being institutionally unwilling to accept any other law enforcement body as remotely equally or sufficiently competent. The friction is not Native American and Non-Native American, it is the political reality of large and small bureaucracies.
One of the great pleasures of this story is the confidence that Tony Hillerman has in his writing, the story unfolds at a nearly leisurely pace, there are very few moments of violent action, the reader is never less than engaged in the action. The cast are welcoming and intriguing, they have have lives outside the cast case that give them strong weight and depth. The there leads are competent and professional, they come at the puzzles with clear thinking and a willingness to trust each other. Tony Hillerman  rests the story squarely on their shoulders and they carry it easily. Smart writing and a real pleasure.

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