The Shape Shifter

I’m about a year behind on Tony Hillerman. My reading has really bogged down as of late. I’ve been busy at work and I’ve been consumed with uploading all my digital photos to flickr. I was unmotivated, so it was a no-brainer to bang through a short Hillerman that has been sitting around for awhile.

It was another great effort – crime fiction in a particular setting that I gobble up. Besides the mystery, Hillerman always tosses in some cultural surprises. He is clearly infatuated with the belief systems of all peoples and cultures. In this book the main character, a retired Navajo Tribal Policeman named Joe Leaphorn, uses his knowledge of the Hmong deity to befriend a potential enemy.


Let me back up a bit. The bad guy is a Vietnam vet and he has a Hmong servant named Tommy Vang whom he met while serving in Asia. At first you sense that Vang is an evildoer with special, far east killing skills. In the end it’s clear that Vang is an innocent who was taken advantage of for most of his life. The way Hillerman builds the rapport between Leaphorn and Vang after the two meet in a potentially contentious situation is pure genius.

Leaphorn uses a combination of kindness, firmness, and understanding (Leaphorn majored in some sort of anthropology) to break down the barriers between the two cultures and it really worked well. The slow, methodical, question and answer session between the two men as they make their way towards a potentially violent conflict with a third party is very rewarding for the reader.

The conversation was about their individual belief systems, basically their religions, and how they’re different but the same. It was about listening rather than telling – two adults from opposite ends of the world finding a common thread in a topic that few agree on, and the result was trust. In the end, they team up and emerge alive.

I need Hillerman to keep churning these out but he seems to be slowing down (no new hardcover in 2007). It’s difficult to explain why they’re so great. The cultural commentary, the human drama, or the seedy crimes on the reservation. It’s all good. Maybe I’ll just read crime dramas all year, screw it.