[7 August 2009]
Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, introduced in Tony Hillerman’s 1980 novel, People of Darkness, is one of the enduring characters of mystery fiction. He embodies the conflicts felt by many bicultural people who struggle to integrate within their own lives influences from the modern, white world (Chee studied anthropology at the University of New Mexico and is considering joining the FBI) and their traditional cultural heritage (he’s studying to be a yataalii or Navajo healer).
A clear literary precedent is Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, the half-Aboriginal detective in Arthur Upfield’s detective novels: like “Bony” Chee draws on his multi-cultural knowledge and experience in solving crimes. But Chee is more palatable to modern tastes: the Navajo are a sovereign nation and Chee can interact with the biligana world of white people on his own terms, without needing to embrace its values.
As is typical with Hillerman novels, People of Darkness begins by plunging you into the action. In this case, a bomb is set off at a cancer clinic. Then a box of keepsakes is stolen, a shadowy character passes through town, and a man is murdered. It all seems to have something to do with a group called the “People of Darkness” and peyote and an oil-drilling accident which occurred in the late 1940s. And because it’s a Hillerman novel readers get an ample serving of Navajo culture and New Mexico geography along with their mystery. That aspect is excellent as always (in fact, it’s the main reason I keep returning to Hillerman’s books) and the character of Chee is complex and believable.
Too bad Hillerman had a tin ear when it came to romance: the story of Chee’s dalliance with the white schoolteacher Mary Landon rings false from beginning to end. But it’s worse than that: Mary, like the Chee’s girlfriends in the later novels, is little more than a plot device to allow Hillerman to explore Chee’s attitude towards his Navajo heritage. Setting that weakness aside, People of Darkness is an enjoyable mystery novel which provides a glimpse inside a culture which is foreign to most people.