The Wailing Wind
by Tony Hillerman
Published by HarperCollins
232 pages, 2002
A Strong 'Wind'
Reviewed by Nicholas H. Allison
Let's be frank: Among the crime writers who routinely hit the bestseller lists, only a handful have much literary merit. I read and enjoy many of them. But most are either skillful button-pushers who work at the level of a good TV show or Hollywood movie (James Patterson, David Baldacci, Harlan Coben) or longtime series creators milking their franchises or obsessing over their alter egos (Robert B. Parker, Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell).
Of the more writerly superstars, there are the self-consciously literary noir stylists, like Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane. There's P.D. James. And, standing alone, the inventor and still king of his own subgenre, is Tony Hillerman. To be sure, he has legions of imitators who produce murder mysteries infused with Native American lore, culture and landscapes. But none can hold a candle to his understated mastery of story and character.
In The Wailing Wind, the 15th novel to feature Navajo cops Joe Leaphorn and/or Jim Chee, these virtues are on full display. The older, more acculturated Leaphorn and the younger, more traditional Chee debuted independently -- Leaphorn in 1970's The Blessing Way and Chee in 1980's People of Darkness -- but these two have been loosely collaborating since Skinwalkers, published in 1986.
Hillerman's writing, in particular his plotting, has generally improved over the last 30-plus years, though his output has been somewhat uneven. The Wailing Wind is one of his best works yet. Its multithreaded story revolves around the white man's insatiable hunger for gold, in particular the widespread obsession with legendary "lost" mines of the American Southwest.
The case opens as young Navajo officer Bernadette Manuelito (whom longtime fans will enjoy seeing back in the spotlight) discovers a male corpse slumped in a pickup truck in a remote mountain arroyo. This sets two plot wheels turning. First, Bernie mishandles the crime scene, putting her in Dutch with her bosses -- including Jim Chee, with whom a romantic attraction has been (very) slowly building over the last few books. Chee's efforts to help her replant the evidence she removed and her own motivation to redeem herself through extra-thorough investigating propel key parts of this story.
In addition, the dead man was carrying documents regarding the lost Golden Calf Mine. This piques the retired Joe Leaphorn's interest, since it ties into an unresolved case from his police career. Several years before, oil-lease tycoon Wiley Denton, long obsessed with finding the Golden Calf, nearly paid a con man for maps to the mine -- but then, realizing they were fakes, shot him after a struggle. The unsettled mystery involves Denton's young wife, who disappeared that same day and was never found.
Leaphorn has always wondered: Did Denton kill his wife? Was she an accomplice to the scam, who fled after her cohort was shot? And what was the eerie wailing sound heard that same day, coming from an abandoned Army fort outside Gallup?
In typical Hillerman fashion, most of the dramatic action takes place offstage, with the plot chiefly advancing through descriptions of simple activity (often driving), radiant evocations of landscape, and above all, dialogue. Conversation is used masterfully for exposition of both plot and character. And Hillerman's prose, as always, is a marvel of craftsmanship: clear, clean, self-effacing, almost never straining for effect. Though compressed and efficient, it doesn't feel that way; it radiates a sense of simplicity, dignity and a leisurely pace, qualities that may reflect Hillerman's Oklahoma upbringing and his immersion in the Navajo Way.
Here, for example, is a passage from early in the book, describing Officer Manuelito's lunch break on her way to the abandoned truck:
She sat on a sandstone slab in a mixed growth of aspen and spruce, eating her sack lunch, thinking of Sergeant Jim Chee, and facing north to take advantage of the view. Pastora Peak and the Carrizo Mountains blocked off the Colorado Rockies, and the Lukachukai forest around her closed off Utah's peaks. But an infinity of New Mexico's empty corner spread below her, and to the left lay the northern half of Arizona. This immensity, dappled with cloud shadows and punctuated with assorted mountain peaks, was enough to lift the human spirit. At least it did for Bernie.
In fact, Hillerman is so good you wish he were a little better, and The Wailing Wind isn't without shortcomings. An early section is marred by awkward exposition of the case's backstory. Some low-key humor at his characters' expense is pushed too far, creating a rare "trying too hard" effect. More subtly, there's a slight sense of stasis hanging over the book. One pleasure of reading Hillerman is the leisurely sameness of his world and of his repertory characters, yet it seems time for some accelerated change (between books, perhaps) in Chee's and Leaphorn's personal lives.
But, really, these are quibbles. The Wailing Wind is an absorbing, suspenseful, moving tale that only Tony Hillerman could have written. It's lovely to see this consummate craftsman, now in his late 70s, continue to raise his game. | May 2002
Nicholas H. Allison was most recently the editor-in-chief for books at Amazon.com. He has also been editor-in-chief of Adobe Magazine and a freelance editor and musician. As a copy editor for Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) in the late 1980s, he was thrilled to work on several of Tony Hillerman's novels.