| The best surprise about "The First Eagle," Tony Hillerman's smart new crime novel, is that there aren't many surprises. Hillerman brings back his stalwart Navajo Tribal policemen -- Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee and retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn -- and sets the book's action in the Four Corners area of the Southwest, where several states, as well as several Indian reservations and a number of Indian and white cultures, meet. The result is a thriller that's full of insight and subtle humor, one that easily transcends the genre.
Before he turned to fiction, Hillerman covered the crime beat for a number of newspapers, and his books have the kind of verisimilitude that can't be faked. Even his dialogue has a sturdy rhythm; you feel you're eavesdropping on actual conversations and jokes. In "The First Eagle," he alternates between two cases: Chee's investigation of the death of Benjamin Kinsmen, a fellow Navajo policeman, and Leaphorn's search for missing biologist Catherine Pollard, who's studying the spread of bubonic plague on the reservation.
In his search for Pollard, Leaphorn employs both conventional and unconventional methods: He seeks out not only biologists who have worked with the woman, but also a local trader who's heard talk of witchcraft. Meanwhile, Chee must deal with a Hopi man caught at a murder scene on land shared by both the Navajo and the Hopi. After seeking advice from his mentor and great uncle, he employs a traditional hunting ritual (among other things) in an attempt to prove that the man is innocent.
For Hillerman's longtime readers, the nuances of his characters' lives are as interesting as anything in his plots. And while Leaphorn's and Chee's work is informed by a traditional Navajo understanding of "beauty" and "harmony," Hillerman doesn't lionize this pair -- they're not flawless and noble. Each seems to be at a crossroads: Leaphorn's wife has died of cancer, and that experience haunts him throughout this story. (What's more, he can't seem to give up police work, despite being officially retired.) For his part, Chee is ambivalent about a possible promotion because it might force him to leave the reservation. His romantic relationships are just as tortured.
Hillerman was referring to the Native American writers Leslie Marmon Silko and M. Scott Momaday when he once said, "They are artists. I am a storyteller." He's being modest. Hillerman's storytelling is its own kind of folk art; few writers in any genre are as adept at creating such textured environments while also keeping us glued to our seats.