As I worked on a recent post, Favorite Fictional Detectives, I realized I didn’t remember the details of Skinwalkers, a key Tony Hillerman novel that I read soon after it was published in 1986. I read it again and found it to be a thoroughly satisfying mystery. I offer this brief review to encourage others who may not know Hillerman’s work to give it a look.
Officer Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police, tosses and turns one night in the airstream where he lives in the desert. When his closest neighbor, a feral cat, shoots through the pet door, Chee gets up to peer out the window at what might have scared it so badly. Probably a coyote, he thinks. For a moment, thinks he sees a shape in the darkness. Then the night explodes. Three shotgun blasts tear holes in the trailer just above the bed where Chee was sleeping moments before.
In the morning, as he cleans up his trailer, Chee makes a frightening discovery. Among the shotgun pellets that litter the floor is a small bone pellet. Navajo witches, or skinwalkers, inject bone into the bodies of people they want to kill. The bone produces the fatal “corpse sickness.” This bone fragment links three apparently separate killings that Lt. Joe Leaphorn, a senior tribal detective, has been trying to solve without success. When Leaphorn and Chee join forces, their first problem is persuading anyone to talk, when tradition holds that speaking a skinwalker’s name will attract his harmful attention.
Chee is learning to be a traditional Navajo healer. With a background in college psychology classes, he understands his role to be restoring people to the core Navajo values of beauty and harmony. Skinwalkers have fallen away and try to take others with them.
Leaphorn is not a believer, but he learned by hard experience that other people are. Early in his career, when he ignored talk of witches, three murders and a suicide were the result. As he and Chee grope through the dark, a very real menace is watching from a direction they do not expect.
This book represents fine storytelling, with characters and a setting that are outside our normal experience. It’s one of the best mysteries I’ve read, and I suspect it will make you want to read more of Tony Hillerman’s work.