If the economy has put the kibosh on your travel plans this summer, you can still take a virtual journey to Navajo country in the company of Tony Hillerman whose detective novels have done as much as anything else to foster an appreciation for the cultures and peoples of this region.
The story and characters in A Thief of Time, first published in 1988, seem as fresh today as when the book first came out. The precipitating event in this novel is the murder of Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, an anthropologist working in Chaco Canyon. Officer Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn are both called in to work on the case, which ultimately uncovers a wide network of people, both Caucasian and Native American, who are involved in the illegal excavation and sale of Native artifacts.
A Thief of Time is one of Hillerman’s best-plotted stories and is particularly rich in descriptions of the Navajo traditions as well. Hillerman has always used Leaphorn and Chee to represent contrasting attitudes toward their Navajo heritage: in this book they become reconciled when Leaphorn, dealing with the recent death of his wife Emma, asks Chee (who studies and practices the ancient Navajo spiritual ways) to help him come to terms with his grief.
Hillerman also gets some digs in at the competitive, hothouse nature of academia, where the urge to impress an advisor or publish a career-making article can become so overwhelming as to prompt otherwise normal people into risky, even criminal, behavior.
If this story has a “ripped from the headlines” aspects it’s because the problem of artifact theft has not gone away in the intervening years. The case of Utah physician James Redd, who committed suicide in June after being charged along with several others with trafficking in stolen artifacts, once again brought national focus to the continuing existence of this crime.
A Thief of Time was re-released by HarperCollins in May.