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Lieutenant Leaphorn Goes to Washington : TALKING GOD by Tony Hillerman (Harper & Row: $17.95; 288 pp.; 006-016118-3)

July 09, 1989|Orlando A. Romero | Romero, a novelist, is research librarian for the History Library of the Museum of New Mexico and columnist for the Santa Fe Reporter. and

Tony Hillerman's new novel takes the reader through a crescendo of characters, locations, plots and subplots. Hillerman manipulates his reader to the hilt. It wouldn't be a Hillerman mystery otherwise.

The plot is centered around Yeibachai, the great Talking God of Navajo night chant ceremonial. The author's ability to relate with great detail the Navajo mythology surrounding the ceremonial adds a dimension that his fans expect. First-time readers will discover that he has set the stage for the introduction of two Navajo cops, each from a different police agency.

Reunited to solve the mystery of a dead foreign terrorist found in New Mexico, they find themselves embroiled in a conflict over valuable ancient ceremonial masks, the return of about 18,000 Native American remains held at the Smithsonian, and the introduction of a reborn Indian named Highhawk, who is the Smithsonian conservator in charge of an ambitious exhibit called "The Masked Gods of the Americas."

Highhawk's deep love of Navajo culture, his connections to terrorists, his work at the Smithsonian, his attendance and recording of the night chant ceremonial and his arrest for digging up a historically prominent New England couple to challenge the Smithsonian's retention of Native American skeletons add further complexity to the plot.

Janet Pete, a Navajo turned Washington lawyer, takes on Highhawk's defense. When Jim Chee, one of the two Navajo cops, arrives in Washington, Janet confides in him that she believes she is being followed. Fleck, the unsavory character following her, turns out to be connected to a larger evil.

Hillerman left me very uncomfortable with the development of this heavy. At first, I sympathized: a product of the so-called justice system, I thought; an assassin by circumstance rather than by choice. But the introduction of his "Mama," a deranged character maintained in a nursing home by Fleck's earnings from his "profession," is gratuitously confusing.

While Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is trying to figure out Fleck, Lt. Joe Leaphorn is trying to discover the identity of the toothless corpse found in New Mexico. I wasn't sure Hillerman could draw these two cops together, especially in an environment as foreign to them as D.C., but he pulls it off very smoothly.

Hillerman is also very clever at describing the predicament of the modern Pueblo Indian and turning it into a minor plot to distract us from the real villains. The return of one of the Tano Twin War Gods may get a young Pueblo official elected and thus assure a right-of- way on Pueblo Indian land, further increasing the value of land being developed by Sunbelt Corp. Traditionalists, of course, are opposed. Out here in Pueblo Land, the issue of Indian development is quite a serious matter, so for a while the reader is led to believe that plain old land development greed is somehow connected to the corpse in the desert.

Hillerman also spins off little intellectual diversions to see if his fans are paying attention to the plot. These passages read like little tests to see how much the reader knows about the Southwest. When our toothless terrorist's baggage contents are examined, a few pieces of Indian pottery are wrapped in a Spanish language newspaper entitled El Crespusculo de la Libertad, The Dawn of Liberty. Any serious student of the Southwest would immediately know that this is one of the rarest newspapers ever published in the Southwest, one for which a collector might literally kill. Then, as the plots develop, the fact that the newspaper is in Spanish ends up being its only connection with the stiff.

Hillerman's great skill is in throwing out possible scenarios while hiding motive in a complex web of myth, exotic characters and remote places. One of America's best storytellers, he gives new meaning to the label mystery writer. His inspiration is the Southwest and its people, but his ability as a storyteller has no limits. Another golden star for Tony Hillerman has just crossed his sky.

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