This is the second of Tony Hillerman’s novels that I have read about the Navajo police detective Joe Leaphorn. I was left unconvinced by The Blessing Way – it seemed a little lame and dated. Listening Woman I found to be a much more satisfying read. Perhaps it has simply taken this amount of time for me to get comfortable with Hillerman’s writing and the Leaphorn character, because this is still a novel that is very much of its time. Leaphorn is not the contradictory, psychologically troubled, socially handicapped and morally contradictory detective that has become a hallmark of more recent detective fiction. Leaphorn is unequivocally a good guy, who emerges from near-death scrapes to get his man at the conclusion of a simple, linear narrative. It is of a time when grey areas between right and wrong did not exist in detective fiction, an uncomplicated world with a relatively uncomplicated plot. I still have some way to go with Hillerman, I think, before I become a fan, but I shall perservere with him.
What I find increasingly impressive is the traditional Navajo cultural context for the novels. Hillerman is clearly knowledgeable about this, but it doesn’t sit in the novels as exotic decoration, but feeds cleverly into the plot. This is not an easy thing. Detective fiction is, after all, largely based upon a rational premise, that the application of rational reasoning will unlock the mystery. It is through the making of rational connections that the murder is solved and the reader is invited to try and make the same connections. Hillerman, though, presents us with two potentially conflicting cultures – one based upon a belief in the rational and the other, a traditional culture, premised upon an entirely different belief system, one where humans can transform into animals and rituals can influence naturally occurring phenomena. The genre of the detective novel clearly belongs to the former, yet Hillerman shows us both cultures existing side-by-side and does not favour one over the other. They are both part of the same reality and that, I think, is where the real complexity of these novels resides.