Coyote Waits by Tony Hillerman

[9 February 2004]

By Harry H. Long

Sleuths and Shamans

Time was the mystery was a fairly genteel affair, set among the upper crust, which spent several opening chapters introducing the characters before bumping off the least likeable of the lot. Then the sleuth—as often as not an amateur in the tradition of Auguste Dupin whose creator, Edgar Allan Poe, invented the genre –- unraveled the puzzle, though not always before more fatalities occurred. These would complicate the plot –- one victim would almost always be the chief suspect—and presumably keep reader interest from waning. This trend may have begun with Dashiell Hammett but no one has yet to equal the audacious stunt of Dame Agatha Christie who, despite her reputation for being the most staid of the mystery novelists, managed to bump off every single one of her characters in Ten Little Indians.

These days, like the strippers of Gypsy, everybody’s gotta have a gimmick. The inclusion of recipes (possibly begun with Virginia Rich’s Eugenia Potter series) or the use of non- Caucasian detectives (which dates back at least to Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan) are popular as is the prominent participation of cats; there is an absolute plethora of mysteries with cat characters including one by lesbian author Rita Mae Brown who began her career with the brilliant semi- autobiographical Rubyfruit Jungle and seems to be wending her way to literary mediocrity ever since. Two of the strangest contenders are both tongue-in-cheek: Dean James’s series about a gay vampire mystery writer and Eric Garcia’s featuring a private eye who’s actually a dinosaur, one of many who have survived by disguising themselves to pass as human beings. The challenge of creating the detective seems to require as much imagination as the creation of the mystery and possibly more. This writer is contemplating an undead, gay Native American chef who solves mysteries with the aid of his psychic cat.

Native American characters and themes figure in a number of mysteries including Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Childs and several ongoing series by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear. The most prominent series is Tony Hillerman’s series featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee which has been in progress for about 15 years. The PBS Mystery! series, which usually focuses on British sleuths, has recently begun adapting Hillerman’s stories which has occasioned the reissue of Coyote Waits, the third of the “Navajo Mysteries” with a tie-in cover blurb added.

This writer hasn’t read any of Hillerman’s other books so comparison to them isn’t possible; Coyote may not be a particularly representative title. It is a rather odd book however in that the mystery which prompts the story seems of less importance to Hillerman than exploring the characters Leaphorn and Chee, who are not at this point much acquainted with each other. Chee is an officer who would prefer being a shaman but has found little call for those services; Leaphorn is a veteran of the police force who is contemplating retirement; both find themselves torn between their heritage and the white world in various, though different ways.

The book itself seems torn. While the solution to the mystery lies within Navajo culture and several of the main characters are Native Americans, one finishes the book feeling as though the culture has been more alluded to than explored, included merely for color. The mystery, as noted, never attains prominence but the character study aspect never goes very deep either. (Though, admittedly, the two earlier books may have done so and an author is permitted the luxury of more casual exploration of main characters over the course of a series.) Then, too, it may be that in Chee and Leaphorn, Hillerman has created characters just a little too ordinary for any intriguing character study. Yet it should also be noted that in such books as The Visitant, the Gears manage decent character exploration, tons of information on Native American culture and a compelling mystery far more rooted in that culture than the one in Coyote.

Compelling, however, is one word which simply refuses to be applicable here; while it cannot be said to be uninteresting Coyote is no page-turner. The solution to the book’s puzzle (or rather puzzles since this, too, is subdivided). Obviously, Hillerman’s popularity makes this a minority opinion but every aspect of this book was so superficial that, had the necessity of turning in a review loomed, the book would have gone into the box for Goodwill unfinished. Hillerman’s idea of using Native American officers in a tribal police force is a terrific one but, in this book at least he doesn’t do anything terribly noteworthy with that idea.

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