HarperCollins, 302 pages, $26.99
In the opening pages of Spider Woman’s Daughter (2013), Lt. Joe Leaphorn gets shot. In that moment, Leaphorn, the protagonist of the late Tony Hillerman’s best-selling mystery series set on the Navajo Nation, was written out of his lead status. The culprit? Mr. Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, who has continued her father’s series since his death in 2008. Her fifth installment, The Tale Teller, begins with Leaphorn — now retired from the force — sitting in his car, complaining to himself.
The target of Leaphorn’s ire is Louisa, an academic who has been his roommate and general helpmate since the shooting. He is supposed to assist one of her friends, a museum director who needs the skills of a private investigator. But the woman is late for their meeting and Leaphorn is annoyed. This sets the stage for a story that flounders in a string of messy human interactions. Drama and suspense — hallmarks of any good detective novel or thriller — take a back seat to the crotchety infighting of two people who haven’t been getting along. Themes of aging, as well as how younger generations interact with their elders, are threaded throughout the novel’s many plotlines.
In Anne Hillerman’s books, the main characters are Detective Jim Chee — Leaphorn’s former partner and a major player in her father’s 18-book series — and Chee’s wife, Officer Bernadette Manuelito. She was a supporting player for the elder Hillerman but took center stage under his daughter’s authorship. Manuelito is a warm yet bold character who breathes modernity into the Hillermans’ somewhat old-fashioned novels, the first of which, The Blessing Way, was published in 1970. But neither she nor Chee is put to good use in The Tale Teller. Their storylines concern jewelry theft, the shooting of an old man, and the dramatic life of a young woman who struggles with telling the truth. Though these are the novel’s more action-packed threads, they are secondary to those of Leaphorn and Louisa, who spend the story trying to identify an anonymous museum donor and ascertain the existence and location of a historically important dress.
For readers who never miss a Hillerman mystery, the familiar sunbaked Arizona setting might feel like slipping into a warm bath. But The Tale Teller is not Anne Hillerman’s strongest work. The forward momentum is often bogged down by a focus on a mundane detail that doesn’t advance the story, such as who called whom on the phone and who hung up first, or what people are cooking for dinner. Other shortcomings include inessential subplots and characters and perfunctory scenic descriptions that feel lifted from tourist guidebooks.
Many Navajo readers embraced Tony Hillerman’s novels for exposing white readers to their culture and ways of life, but the books were never without controversy. It continues with his daughter’s contributions. While many of The Tale Teller’s struggles are stylistic and could have been addressed through careful revision, its most problematic aspect is that much of the historical and cultural information about Navajo people feels forced and inauthentic, as if Hillerman were giving a commercial tour of Indian Country, rather than writing from inside of a culture she knows well. The approach is out of step with current trends in Native American literature, seen in books like Tommy Orange’s There There (2018) and Brandon Hobson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking (2018). These authors reveal indigenous culture in rich literary detail, inviting readers into the experience, whereas Hillerman’s approach seems to be to talk about and explain Navajo culture to readers who are presumed to live far outside of the Native experience.