Monday, November 29, 2010

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

This is my first audio book in quite some time. I listened to most of Mr. Hillerman's old books this way, so since I wanted to try out an audio book again, he immediately came to mind. Those used to my longer reviews for books should note that it's hard not to spoil a mystery if I delve too deeply, so I've tried to keep this brief.

By this time, Joe Leaphorn, my favorite of his two detectives, has retired, and Jim Chee has settled into marriage. We meet them as Leaphorn has a story to tell--one that might be better off left unsaid to people still in the employ of the government.

In looking up an old friend, Leaphorn tumbles on to a complex story of theft, deception, and murder within the framework of the Native American culture he's defended over the years. When curiosity and the desire to see wrongs righted--not to mention a little threat to his own life--pull him further into a complex puzzle, it seems that this time Leaphorn may be in over his head. With joints aching and the former power of a policeman behind him, he can only work within the sidelines--and sometimes, he'll have to jump off his traditional lines instead.

Can he figure out who is who with enough time to prevent more murders? Can a white man with the apparent power of a shape-changing skinwalker (in the most modern form, of course) stop him? And if they knew the truth, just what would Chee and his wife do?

Though it's somewhat disappointing to learn that Leaphorn is no longer on active duty, the rest of this was vintage Hillerman. If you've read him and liked his stuff before, you're going to enjoy this. If you find his wandering yet precisely plotted prose rather dull, then this is not going to appeal to you at all. Leaphorn's stories are always puzzles, and getting the pieces together can sometimes be maddening to the reader. This one was no exception. But when they're fitted together, Hillerman puts together some of the best climaxes in the genre. Combine that with his ability to create colorful and human characters for his detectives to interact with, and you have a solid mystery.

This particular edition also places a strong emphasis on identity, because of the nature of the plot. Leaphorn reflects on what he is now, as a retired cop. He also connects with another character stripped of his cultural heritage, as Leaphorn was. For the most part, these are weaved into the narrative, though at one point towards the end where the origin stories are rehashed again, it feel like a bit of "look how much I know of Navajo culture" thrown in for good measure. Because of the internal emphasis, there's a bit less on the lay of the land. Those looking for the descriptions of mesas and ruins may find this one a bit lacking in what they look for in a Leahphorn/Chee story. This will also be true for those who really like Chee. He's almost complete comic relief here, and has only a small role.

My only qualm is with Leaphorn's actions towards the end of the book. Perhaps this is part of his evolution as a character, but I remember him as being a very strict law and order type. He bends the law early and often in this one, which, while perfectly natural within the story, does feel a bit stretched here and there. Chee would have been a more likely candidate for associating with a former felon who wants revenge, for instance.

Still, not every write can say they're putting out quality mysteries this far into a series book. Hillerman can, and I look forward to more.

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