Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Tony Hillerman: Skeleton Man

Guest Review by Kit Bradley
February 4, 2008

My wife Sue and I have enjoyed reading Tony Hillerman novels for years. I just now counted 15 of his books on our bookshelves. Skeleton Man continues Tony Hillerman’s genre of mysteries set in the desert southwest, although this time not on the Navaho reservation.

We meet again the “legendary” Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, now retired, and the younger Sergeant Jim Chee, still not married. As usual, Joe can’t sit back and act retired, and he gets involved in this mystery, although pretty much as an observer on the sidelines. And Jim has almost as many doubts about marrying his current girlfriend, Bernie Manuelito, as he has had over his other girlfriends in the earlier novels.

The story builds from the crash of two airliners over the Grand Canyon 50 years ago, in which all die, including John Clarke, the father of yet-to-be-born Joanna Craig. Apparently John was carrying a case of diamonds, and 50 years later a local Hopi named Billy Tuve shows up with a valuable diamond. This stirs up a lot of interest with local law enforcement, and it also brings Joanna to the area, as well as Bradford Chandler, a shady guy from back east. Joanna doesn’t care much about the diamonds, but she desperately wants to find remains of her father. Chandler has an assignment to keep Joanna from succeeding, but actually he’s a lot more interested in the diamonds.

The story starts off introducing all the characters and setting up their relationships. Eventually, when the action starts, all the characters head for the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where the mystery reaches its climax.

As in all Tony Hillerman’s novels, it’s interesting to learn about the culture and geography of the locale. In this book we get a nice trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Many of Hillerman’s novels reach the climax of the mystery in synchronization with a major weather event. This book is no exception, and a thunderstorm plays a key role in the action.

I think Hillerman’s mysteries follow a common formula a bit too closely. Joe Leaphorn always applies his deductive reasoning skills to get some good insights into the case, although he didn’t shine quite so much this time. Jim Chee has less imagination, but he does the hard legwork and stays in the center of the adventure. And he always agonizes over his relationship with his current girlfriend. Will he actually marry Bernie this time? Meanwhile, the bad guys are always greedy, and that generally leads to their downfall as the story comes to its climax.

In summary, Skeleton Man is a fun read, but it’s not my favorite of Hillerman’s Leaphorn/Chee novels. The characters didn’t develop or evolve as much as sometimes. And I got a little confused about how they all ended up at the bottom of the Grand Canyon without seeing each other on the way down. But I had fun reading it aloud to Sue over several evenings. (I wish I could do Native American accents better!)

1 comment:

Nate Bradley said...

It is interesting that Kit has mentioned that he has read so many Tony Hillerman books. I remember reading my first one on the recommendation of our mother. I enjoyed it, but for some reason have not read more than two or three over the years. Stranger still is that Skeleton Man is one of them.

It is interesting to learn that Skeleton Man is not really the best example of Hillerman's work. If this is below average, I clearly need to read more.