Tony Hillerman, the late, great author of 18 novels featuring Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, cited the aboriginal mysteries of Australian crime writer Arthur W. Upfield as the inspirations for his signature blend of page-turning whodunits and gee-whiz forays into cultural anthropology. These are books in which the detectives’ unique understanding of native beliefs and traditions enable them to solve crimes that confound the uninitiated, all while exposing readers to the language and customs, spirituality and ceremonies of the indigenous peoples among whom they operate.
The ever-expanding universe of Hillerman emulators (no reservation, it seems, will remain unscathed) attests both to the formula’s popularity and to the reading public’s insatiable appetite for Native American culture. Some of these authors – Margaret Coel, Dana Stabenow, and now Tony’s daughter Anne Hillerman – have become familiar, bankable brands. Others, while perhaps not as famous, are no less venerated in writerly circles. To this latter cohort I would assign Win Blevins, the co-author (along with his wife, mystery novelist Meredith Blevins) of “The Darkness Rolling.”
It’s not as though Mr. Blevins is new to the game. The author of 31 books, he is a two-time Spur Award winner, a recipient of the Western Writers of America’s Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement, and a member of the Western Writers Hall of Fame. But only with their latest novel, and their second collaboration, do Mr. and Mrs. Blevins, who are Bluff, Utah, residents, dust off the Hillerman family recipe for what promises to be a tasty series of historical mysteries set in Navajoland.
The year is 1946, and Seaman Yazzie Goldman – half Jewish, half Navajo, all beefcake – has mustered out of the Navy and returned to his family’s Oljato trading post just as film director John Ford and a gaggle of Hollywood stars have descended on Monument Valley. While the war years may have expanded Yazzie’s horizons, they’ve been less kind to his family, as Mose Goldman, Yazzie’s grandfather, has suffered a debilitating stroke requiring Yazzie’s mother Nizhoni and his visiting “aunt” Iris to care for the old man at the expense of maintaining the trading post.
To Nizhoni, her son’s return portends not only a welcome family reunion, but also the chance to whip the trading post back into shape. Yazzie has other ideas, since Ford has hired him to serve as personal bodyguard to film star Linda Darnell, a tempestuous beauty who’s the subject of anonymous death threats. Nature and fiction taking their inevitable courses, Yazzie and Linda soon fall into bed, forcing Yazzie to juggle the toils and temptations of his old and new lives on the Rez.
Complicating matters is the fact that Yazzie’s father Adikai, a saddle tramp who abandoned Nizhoni before Yazzie was born, has just been released from prison after serving 25 years for murder. Vowing revenge against Mose and Nizhoni, whose testimony sealed his conviction, Adikai now styles himself Zopilote, the buzzard, and is coming home to Oljato in hopes of a very different sort of reunion.
It’s a great set-up that, except for the thin anonymous-letter subplot and the distracting antics of some cartoonish FBI agents, unspools rather nicely as Yazzie pings between Linda’s boudoir, the trading post, the movie set, and the sere beauty of a Monument Valley whose vast and silent presence hangs like a guiding spirit over the proceedings.
Rich in character and steeped in Diné culture, “The Darkness Rolling” (Forge/ Tom Doherty Associates) is a perfect summer read for those still mourning Tony Hillerman’s 2008 passing. What’s best, the novel’s denouement leaves little doubt but that we’ve not seen the last of the strapping, stoical, and eminently likeable Yazzie Goldman.
Chuck Greaves of Cortez, Colo., shares book-review duties (“Prose & Cons”) at the Free Press. He is the award-winning author of five novels. Learn more at www.chuckgreaves.com.