Lt. Joe Leaphorn
Officer Jim Chee
Officer Bernie Manuelito
If you have read Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee Mystery Series set in and around the Navajo Nation, then you know and love these three main characters. They are the tribal police officers who solve the problems inherent in each novel’s main action. Their humanity shines through as they deal with not just their work but with love, family and culture as well.
After Tony Hillerman’s death, his daughter Anne Hillerman continued the lives and stories of these (and other) characters, much to the delight of her father’s fans. Her first effort –Spider Woman’s Daughter—proved she was up to the task of continuing the characters and stories bought to life by her father.
Her second novel Rock with Wings (2015) is another fitting addition to the series, adding another layer of complexity to the inter-relationships of the primary characters while exploring several interrelated mysteries. Anne Hillerman uses adept character development and a sensitive sense of place to weave together an impressive tale as intricate and beautiful as a carefully designed rug. She weaves the lives of these likable characters together with a movie about Zombies, solar energy, secondary characters such as lost teens and an elderly grandfather, financial intrigue, and photo tours into a seamless whole that builds to an engaging conclusion that ties all the loose ends together.
Rock with Wings starts with Bernie and Chee planning a short vacation to Monument Valley to visit one of Chee’s relatives. It is their first get-away since their honeymoon two years earlier. As can be expected, the overdue vacation is interrupted as various cases and family matters pull at the time and attention of the two tribal officers. Bernie is bothered by the nervous behavior of a driver she stopped for a traffic violation; the guy tries to bribe her to let him off with a ticket. Federal interest further sparks her curiosity into this ongoing investigation aided by her attention to detail and interest in local flora.
The vacation is initially interrupted when Bernie rushes home to address family problems. At the same time, Chee is temporarily re-assigned to work at the Monument Valley office, in part to serve as the liaison to a film crew using Monument Valley as its backdrop for a zombie movie, of all things. This movie production twist allows Hillerman to skillfully add film history of the area into the novel. In fact, John Ford’s classic Stagecoach offers a useful clue to solve one of many intertwining cases Chee is juggling.
Although exploring her odd-driver situation, Bernie also tends to family matters with her mother and sister. There are even a few glimpses of Chee’s rather atypical relationship with his mother-in-law. Since the couple are separated for several days, when Chee is not working, he willingly helps his cousin who is setting up a photo tour guide business within Monument Valley. This domestic theme shows insights into Navajo culture and adds a refreshing balance to the criminal trails that each officer is following. This thread with its strong focus on family life is a nice addition to the series that Anne Hillerman brings to the novels.
Hillerman does a masterful job balancing Bernie’s and Chee’s investigations, and eventually—step by step—solving all the little questions and even showing some overlap of their various cases as part of a bigger picture. An integral aspect of the novel that helps solve the cases is Lt. Joe Leaphorn. He is retired and still recuperating from being shot in the head in the last novel. His recovery is slow, but he is able to find ways to contribute to the investigations as both Chee and Bernie seek out his input and advice. Hillerman has made these characters her own even while subtly clarifying their interdependence and allowing them all—especially Bernie—to develop new skills.
Anne Hillerman continues her father’s practice of making Nature in general and the Navajo Nation specifically an integral part of each novel. The location is more than just a backdrop. The protagonists’ constant awareness of the world around them—the pending rain, the gorgeous sunsets, the morning runs to welcome the day—highlights the importance of Nature to the characters; through Nature they are better able to achieve hozhoni, the Navajo sense of peace, harmony and balance.
In addition, the open spaces, long distances and rough terrain of the Navajo Nation compound the work conducted by tribal officers. Bernie even gives a civic talk in this most recent novel, explaining how the long distances and rough country make policing the Navajo Nation a major challenge on the best of days. Often, the tribal officers are on patrol alone, and they frequently have to travel long distances to and from crime scenes as well as to various offices. Effective communication is often non-existent when not only cell phones but patrol car radios do not work given the rocky terrain.
But sense of place plays an even more important role in Anne Hillerman’s Rock with Wings. For one thing, “Rock with Wings” is the Navajo name for Ship Rock, an impressive monadnock that holds significance for the Navajo and is the exact setting for one of the major events in the novel. The rock formation rises almost 1600 feet above the high desert floor. Second, Monument Valley—called Tse Bii Ndzisgaii in Navajo or Valley of Rocks—is the exact setting for the other major case being explored. The realities of these places contribute to the stories as they unfold.
I was incredibly lucky last spring to have literally visited both Ship Rock and Monument Valley just weeks before reading Rock with Wings. The impressiveness as well as the isolation and openness of the two locales stayed with me as I read the novel, making the reality of the mysteries even more evident. If you have not yet read Rock with Wings, I suggest you do—and if you can visit the Navajo Nation, do that too. The novel can stand alone as an engaging mystery, but complex layers of character and place emerge if you read it as the continuation of the Leaphorn and Chee Mystery Series.
Either way, Rock with Wings is a good read. I am hopeful that Anne Hillerman will offer another novel in the series, soon.