The Wailing Wind by Tony Hillerman

I had forgotten how good Tony Hillerman is.

Here is a mystery story that is more about the characters involved than it is about the mystery. What is fascinating about it is the way that Navajo culture is woven into the story so that it becomes part of who the people are. I know David and Aimee Thurlo have done something similar with their books but not quite as well.

When officer Bernadette Manuelito discovers a body on the reservation the FBI decides to get involved. Unfortunately she misdiagnosed the severity of the body, leading the FBI to call for her suspension as an officer – something Sergeant Jim Chee doesn’t think she deserves. Meanwhile the retired Joe Leaphorn gets involved because Chee needs his advice and he’s not really able to curb his curiosity.

This is a culture that is wholly different from what most Americans know. People pull their own molars when they are bad, have no qualms about using deadly force to protect sacred land and are culturally afraid of dead bodies. They’re also culturally patient. Most people feel uncomfortable if a conversation is silent for more than a few seconds. Many Navajo conversations have extended pauses and they are perfectly comfortable with the silence.

What makes Tony Hillerman unique is that he tells a story that is part of that setting and culture, rather than one that merely takes place in it.

I did notice a small tic in his writing. He uses certain phrases frequently when describing characters. Joe Leaphorn is almost always ‘the legendary lieutenant’ which gets old after awhile.

Those things are small and almost negligible.

I am going to have to read more of Tony Hillerman.


2 thoughts on “The Wailing Wind by Tony Hillerman”

  1. I have not read the Sinister Pig but have read more than a dozen of Hillerman’s books. They are pretty popular with some of my Navajo students. Others don’t like his books because they are trying to divorce themselves from the culture Hillerman so aptly depicts in his books. Leaphorn is always ‘legendary’ and after a while it becomes not mundane but part of Hillerman’s trademark. I love the books because setting is one of the characters in every book.

    1. I agree about the importance of setting. I wonder, sometimes, if Hillerman’s setting is as rich and powerful to people who do not live in the southwest and have not experienced the setting first hand. It is truly magical and no wonder why so much of the Navajo culture is tied to the land.

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