Tony Hillerman has written a long series of novels set in the Navajo country in the US Southwest, and featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee as Navajo Tribal Police called on to solve various crimes. The books reflect a deep knowledge and respect for Navajo traditions and thinking that play a major role in the way in which the leads carry out their investigations. They also reflect the conflict at both personal and system levels between the Navajo culture and that of the world around them.
Shape Shifter has a retired Joe Leaphorn working on an unsolved case from his past, triggered by a former colleague and a picture of a priceless Navajo rug, woven with images of the Long Walk of the Navajo when the white culture wanted them removed as a final solution. Trouble is, the rug was meant to have been destroyed in a fire that also burned up a wanted murderer. The story is about Joe’s dogged and patient working through of the evidence that suggests that his target’s identity may have been changed and assumed – a shape shifter. The investigation also brings Joe into contact with Tommy Vang, a Hmong from South-east Asia, whose people have some similar experiences to the Navajo. The end is reached in a hail of bullets and bloodshed, and justice is done, if not quite by the book.
The feel of The Shape Shifter seems to be a bit different from most of the earlier books – more elegaic, perhaps matching Joe Leaphorn’s reflective mood in his “retirement”. The detecting, as always, seems to require many miles and hours of travel and a lot of awareness of Navajo manners and customs. And that’s ok. But what does seem a little forced is the use of Tommy Vang as some sort of plot mechanism to help move the action along. This detracts from the book, which is a pity, because for the most part it’s a great read, with enough hints of future issues that Joe will need to face to suggest that more will come.
My copy published by Allison & Busby. For more details on Tony Hillerman’s books go to the Wikipedia entry, and for more about everything related to Tony Hillerman go to the unofficial website (don’t bother with the official HarperCollins site – too busy, not user-friendly).