Anne Hillerman’s first novel, Spider Woman’s Daughter, presents a unique challenge to assess.
The clues to the challenge are all in the preceding sentence. The name Hillerman is known far and wide as beloved Tony Hillerman, the creator of a mystery series that popularized the Southwest and Navajo lawmen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Then there’s the phrase “first novel”...
Anne Hillerman is an accomplished nonfiction writer who must have thought long and hard about reviving her father’s beloved characters and continuing their stories. Hillerman’s narrative displays her knowledge and comfort with the Navajo people and their landscape. She wisely chooses as her main focus Navajo Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito, now the wife of Jim Chee.
Spider Woman’s Daughter literally starts with a bang. After the weekly breakfast meeting at the Navajo Inn with department officers, the now-retired Joe Leaphorn is felled by a single shot in front of a stunned Manuelito. Gravely injured, Leaphorn is taken to the hospital in Santa Fe.
Detective Joe Leaphorn is a legend among the vast Navajo Nation community, and he still helps the Navajo Police department with his crime-solving abilities. Deep in a coma, Leaphorn will be unavailable to help solve this crime.
Because she was the lone eyewitness, Manuelito is off the case and Captain Largo places her husband, Chee, in charge of the investigation. But even Chee must take a back seat to the FBI, because crimes on Native American reservations are the jurisdiction of the federal agency. Agent Jerry Cordova soon arrives on the scene in Window Rock and takes over the case. After the car used in the shooting is discovered, the federal agents pursue several leads. One lead is the son of the car’s owner, a college student, or his friend, both of whom had access to the car and can’t be located.
Captain Largo gives Manuelito the lowly task of giving Leaphorn’s live-in girlfriend, anthropologist Louisa Bourebonette, the bad news. When Manuelito gets to the house, Louisa is nowhere to be found. In an effort to stay involved in finding the assailant, Manuelito helps search Leaphorn’s house for clues. She discovers that Leaphorn was working on an insurance case for a Dr. Collingsworth of the American Indian Resource Center in Santa Fe. Finding an envelope that was to be mailed to the doctor, she decides to deliver it when she travels to the hospital in Santa Fe to visit Leaphorn.
As Chee and Manuelito continue their investigations, characters from an old case taken from Tony Hillerman’s book, A Thief of Time, make a reappearance. That case involved rare and valuable pots created by ancestral Puebloans, previously known as the Anasazi. By the time Manuelito and Chee realize the implications of this connection, the shooter thinks they know too much and must be stopped. It is then a fight for survival.
Hillerman has successfully revived many of the beloved characters from her father’s award-winning series while creating a new leading character in Manuelito. Manuelito as a Navajo female has more complicated family obligations than the male characters. Her mother, a well-known and honored weaver, is in failing health and is supposed to be cared for by Manuelito’s much younger sister, Darlene. Darlene resents her role and is shirking her duties and is also drinking. Many readers will be able to relate to Manuelito and the many hats she must wear: wife, daughter, sister and working woman. Hillerman’s hero is attractive and complex, and it will be interesting to see how the character evolves and handles the next installment in the series.
Spider Woman’s Daughter will appeal to fans of Tony Hillerman and should create new fans. Returning to the phrase “first novel,” Hillerman perhaps spends too much time describing the geography and driving directions of the characters’ routes as they move around New Mexico. Also during conversations between some of the characters, they describe and explain cultural references that seem unnecessary and unlikely for members of the tribe. These are but small quibbles, but they tend to slow down the action of the otherwise compelling story.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Leslie Doran is a Durango freelance reviewer.