Joe, Jim and Bernie

Yá’át’ééh! Fans of the Hillerman books will immediately recognize the three names in the title as Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito (a relatively new addition who doesn’t yet have her own Wiki page). All three are (fictional) police officers working for the (real) Navajo Tribal Police in the American southwest.

I have to call them just “the Hillerman books” now, because after father Tony Hillerman died, daughter Anne Hillerman took up the series and has so far contributed five very worthy stories of her own. (Her vision of the series puts Bernie Manuelito front and center and thus adds fresh air to the 18 books her father wrote.)

I’m a fan of detective novels, especially murder mystery detective novels, and these are without question my second favorite mystery books of all time.

I’ve been meaning to do a post about these pretty much since I started my blog. But when something is so near and dear, one wants to “do it right” so I’ve put off trying for fear of inadequacy.

That applies also to some favorite films (like L.A. Story) that I’ve never gotten around to doing a post about because I so want to do them justice. I’ve mentioned these beloved favorites many times over the years, but never did them the honor of giving them their own post.

But recently, thanks to the Cloud Library, I’ve read the Anne Hillerman additions, and the series has been on my mind. I thought it was high time I highlighted it, especially when some folks might be looking for something new to read.

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Part of my attraction for the series involves a love of the American Southwest desert.

The American Southwest — Navajo Country! [click for big]

I got to know it during the time I lived in Los Angeles. It has a stark beauty all its own. (And I’m fine with dry heat. Rather like it, actually.)

((In fact, I discovered I’m something of a desert rat when I lived in Las Vegas one summer for a job. I considered moving to Arizona or, more likely, New Mexico when I retired. I’m not one for the humidity of Florida.))

Both Tony and Anne fill these books with rich descriptions of the land. The Navajo have great love and respect for the land — historically they lived off it (many still do), and, being desert, it isn’t easy land to live on.

But the beauty of the surrounding mountains, the many earth colors of the desert, and all that sky and weather, permeate and uplift these stories. All three of the main characters love living where they do and love doing what they do. That love of land and work informs these stories.

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The series initially revolves around two Navajo police officers: Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee.

Leaphorn is older, wiser — the ace detective younger officers go to for help. Ultimately he’ll retire and become a private detective and resource for other officers. Leaphorn has a modern sensibility about Navajo spirituality. That is, he doesn’t believe in skinwalkers (witches and wizards) and other supernatural elements of the culture.

(The Navajo are, generally speaking, very uncomfortable with death and they fear a dead person’s spirit (chindi) which they see as typically evil. They will not speak the name of a dead person for fear of attracting its attention. This can cause issues with police work.)

Window Rock, Arizona.

Chee is young and impetuous. And far more prone to Navajo spirituality (and superstition). In fact, Chee is studying to become a Medicine man (Hatalii) in addition to being a cop. Leaphorn becomes something of a mentor to Chee.

Generally speaking both cops work on their own — they aren’t partners. In fact, they work in separate places. Leaphorn works out of Window Rock, AZ, and Chee works out of Shiprock, NM.

Bernadette Manuelito is a young cop introduced later in the series (and made central in Anne Hillerman’s stories). She becomes Jim Chee’s third love interest (after his first two don’t work out) and — third time pays for all — his wife.

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One thing that took me a while to notice is that the characters spend a lot of time in their vehicles driving somewhere.

If you look at the territory, this makes perfect sense — it’s vast. So, of course, any police officer serving that area necessarily spends a lot of time driving. We’re talking about covering parts of four states here (large parts of two of them).

Gorgeous and important Navajo icon, Ship Rock (Tsé Bitʼaʼí — the “rock with wings”). Not to be confused with nearby Shiprock, New Mexico.

As an aside, the territory covers the Four Corners — the only place in the USA where four states touch. At the Four Corners Monument, you can (could?) place one limb in each state. (Somewhere I have a picture of me doing that.)

The genius of the driving is that it’s the perfect place for an author to have a character ruminate about the case or life. It’s also the perfect place for them to reflect on the beauty of the landscape. And if you have two characters in the vehicle, it’s the perfect spot for exposition.

Because what else do you do in a car but think, look around, and chat?

Both Tony and Anne leverage that to great effect. The time driving also helps communicate something of the distances involved as well as the sense of beauty, space, and being alone.

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These books are filled with information about Navajo customs and culture.

Tony Hillerman had a great love of the land and the people, and these books cherish the Navajo. That love is clearly instilled in daughter Anne. Read these 23 books, and you’ll gain an insight to Navajo culture, language, and history.

And it is a journey well worth taking. Navajo culture is pretty awesome. (Remember the Code Talkers in WWII?)

As just one little tidbit, the Navajo (the Diné) really don’t understand revenge. When someone does something bad, they see it as that person being out of balance (hózhó) with life. The goal is to restore that person’s balance.

As someone who is misanthropic and irascible, these books have been something of a spiritual mountain I try to climb (I tend to get stuck in the foothills, but I keep trying; we all need to aspire).

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I’m not usually a fan of other authors continuing a series. Generally speaking, I think fictional characters should die with their author.

I did read many of the James Bond books by John Gardner, but when I began donating books to the library those were among the first to go. (I still have the Ian Flemming Bond books. All of them.)

I also read that new Foundation trilogy by Benford, Bear, and Brin.

But generally speaking, I won’t read the work of replacement authors. I wrote recently about Rex Stout and the Nero Wolfe books. Someone is writing new ones, but I have no interest.

Sue Grafton, who wrote the southern California private eye series about Kinsey Millhone, explicitly said in her will that no one was ever allowed to continue the series. I applaud that.

(In contrast, J.K. Rowling declared she was done with Harry Potter and we all know how that turned out. No applause there.)

Sherlock Holmes presents an interesting exception. I wrote recently about the diffuse nature of the character. Many stories are takes on the original, but many authors have contributed new stories.

But when it’s the author’s daughter, and the daughter clearly shares the love her dad had for the land and the people, that’s keeping it in the family, and I’m totally cool with it.

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Bottom line: I highly recommend these books. If you like police procedurals, or if you like detective stories or murder mysteries, these deliver on all counts. And they are steeped in Navajo lore and the sheer beauty of the land.

I said these books are my second favorite mystery books of all. That includes murder mysteries and general detective stories (which aren’t always murder mysteries, although there is considerable overlap).

My favorite of all is the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker, but that’s a post for another Mystery Monday.

Stay in hózhó, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

18 responses to “Joe, Jim and Bernie

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Sounds like an interesting series.

    I don’t know if I necessarily limit myself to only the original author of a series, but I definitely prioritize the original author whenever I read one.

    That said, years ago, when I wanted to read the original Conan stories, I focused on the ones by Robert E. Howard. But the thing was, while he was definitely talented, he also had a lot of weird hang ups, things that the pastiche authors didn’t suffer from. I actually discovered that I liked some of the pastiche portrayals better, particularly the ones by Robert Jordan.

    Sometimes a character or series manages to bootstrap itself beyond the talent of the original author. I think about the Godfather movies, which are actually better than the source material.

    Admittedly, this is definitely the exception rather than the rule.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      True, and I can think of other exceptions. E.g. I thought Zach Snyder did a better job with Watchmen than the original graphic novel. And I can definitely see where a more sophisticated take on a poorly aging series can be superior. (I bought a lot of those Gardner Bond books.)

      For me some of this involves my disdain for reboots and sequels. Which comes in part from my anti-trend nature; we’re awash in sequels and reboots these days. Some part of my mind loathes it and rebels. (And, truth is, I bore easily and like new things. (Not as in buying, as in discovering.))

      Also, there’s a weird fuzzy line in my head between continuing the venerable characters from long ago (all artists retool the classics) and continuing a modern character in what feels like a money grab. Some part of me is utterly appalled that someone else is writing Spenser books. Parker died in 2010, and they’re just cranking out Spenser books. (To revive an ancient mystical phrase: “Gag me with a spoon.”)

      It all just shows ta go ya, nothing is just one thing; life is always a mix.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        The Fleming Bond novels got added to Kindle Unlimited. I went to read one that I hadn’t before (Live and Let Die), but for some reason, Fleming’s writing wasn’t working for me like it did when I was younger. Some of it, I suspect, is that Fleming was very much of his time. I didn’t mind that in the 70s and 80s, but now 70 years after it was written, I very much feel it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it.

        I’m with you on reboots and sequels. Too much movie and TV seems calibrated toward playing it safe, revisiting old favorites, rather than coming up with something new. As we’ve discussed before, this is annoying since there’s a wealth of material out there waiting to be adapted.

        I’m personally not averse to the commercial nature of this stuff. But my time is limited, both day-to-day and existentially, and I’d prefer not to spend it on boiler-plate fiction.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy reading Fleming now, either. I’ve read the whole series several times and don’t have much incentive to read any of them again. Might be an interesting experiment to try one, but I suspect Bond is part of my youth, too.

        I hung on to the books for potential resale value, but paperbacks don’t age well even if taken care of (acid in the paper), and ebooks have made a lot of formerly rare stuff readily available. At this point I suppose I keep them just because I have shelf space for them. They’ve become decorations.

        I’ve long thought one path for an aspiring writer with a good knowledge of SF would be to write treatments for screenplays. Take some of those great SF stories and write fairly detailed descriptions of how they could be translated to film. Hollywood pays good money for treatments. The trick, as always, is getting one’s foot in the door. It probably involves writing some on spec and getting an agent to shop them around.

        Of course I had me in mind with that idea, but it occurs to me the hat could fit you, too.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Based on what I know about the movie and TV industry, I think I’d hate life writing scripts. Plus, from what I understand, good script writers have a good idea of the logistics of filming and take that into account in their writing. Never been my wheelhouse.

        I kind of like the idea of writing and not having to depend on anyone else. I know that’s not entirely true (beta readers, editors, cover artists, reviewers, etc), but it seems a lot more true than for script writing.

        I did read a couple of books on script writing, but more to get an idea of the story structures they follow. Script writers seem a little more willing to discuss structure. Although I’ve since found books on straight fiction writing that cover it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        True, screen writing is very constrained in all sorts of ways. One does have to learn the craft of making scripts and of thinking very visually. (I did a bit of script writing in college — required classes, but also a skill I needed for my envisioned future as a filmmaker.)

        But treatments aren’t scripts, but descriptions of how a book (or idea) might translate to screen. They describe the characters and plot, but don’t usually have dialog or many details.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Ah, ok, I didn’t catch that the treatments are different. Interesting. Thanks!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The idea was a natural synthesis between my aspirations to filmmaking and a comment lament about all the good SF that Hollywood seemed to be ignorant of. As CGI got better, it opened the doors to great SF stories. I still don’t understand why Hollywood doesn’t tap that source more.

        Fresh out of college I interviewed at a place that did early days motion control photography. Didn’t get the job, but I’ve often wondered what life would have been like had I pursued that path. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would have been a natural with my minor in CS and my major in filmmaking. Would have gotten in on the ground floor of the CGI industry.

        The other possible missed chance: I didn’t learn until after the show was over that TNG accepted scripts from unknown writers. I’d always dreamed of being a tech advisor on that show — so many rough bits I wish I could have smoothed over. (And my idea about how the transporters wasn’t as preposterous. 😀 )

        ((There was also that damned holodeck…))

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think I’d heard about the TNG acceptance policy, but like you, only long after it was past. Not that I was in any position back then to submit anything.

        On the transporter, I’ve long thought the same thing, that they should have gone with some other kind of explanation. Problem is, they locked in the canonical one, with all its issues, as early as the first season episode: “The Enemy Within”. The replicators just poured gasoline on that fire.

        I had similar issues with the holodeck. Although both the transporter and holodeck did enable some interesting existential episodes. But the full implications were never explored, because they’d be too existential, not to mention effect the way the ST universe works.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I could have submitted a script to TNG if I’d only known about it. I think I might even have been driven to do it back then — there were certainly things about the series that bugged me. I would loved to write an episode that lampshaded some of that.

        (When the first episode, Encounter at Farpoint, aired, at the first commercial break I called my buddy, and when he answered the phone my first words were, “I hate it!” (I knew he and his wife were watching it, too.) That first episode was pretty bad, in fact. I still think it’s one of the worst they ever did.)

        The thing about SF tech is that many writers never spend the time to really think about the implications of their tech. It’s often something to generate a plot point or solve a specific problem, but when you start really considering the implications of the tech, all sorts of things pop up.

        Larry Niven did some good stories considering the implications of teleportation, especially easy, cheap, convenient teleportation. He was also one of the few to consider something like your momentum as you suddenly shift frames. The energy has to be shed or gained, depending.

        The holodeck was just ridiculous that way. My SF buddy and I long ago agree that if we were Picard, we’d have welded shut the doors or ejected it into space. The failsafes were apparently trivially defeated; not a great idea on a ship full of kids. (Which was a whole other matter, those kids, but that’s the Roddenberry childhood link.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Someone once noted that every Roddenberry story is some variant of humans meeting God, or at least a superior being of immense power. If you look at the first Star Trek Pilot, the first movie, and the first TNG episode, it’s pretty obvious. Roddenberry was one of those creative types whose outputs were improved by others pushing back.

        I actually think the whole first season is rough. A true fan has to watch them to get all the canonical references, but I actually advise first time viewers to initially skip it.

        Orson Scott Card, in his book on writing science fiction, points out that you have to figure out all the ways a technology will be used, and misused. And that writers failing to do so often miss a lot of story opportunities.

        As soon as I saw the holodeck I groaned. I knew there would be western episodes. (And mystery, and lots of other junk filler.) Like I said, some of the eps where holo characters seemed to come alive were interesting, but yeah, you have to wonder if construction went to the lowest bidder.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ve always seen Roddenberry as a visionary and idea man more than a writer. As I’ve said before, I’m not one of those bored by Superman or by Roddenberry’s idealistic future. I think ideals are good goals, and I regret modern fiction often disdains them.

        The first season did have a few decent episodes, but I agree it took them a while to find their stride. (Doctor Pulaski in season two didn’t help matters.) For my money they did, and I think TNG is the best of Trek. (Which makes that phone call to my buddy rather ironic.)

        “I knew there would be western episodes.”

        But did you know it could create super-Moriarty (“capable of defeating Data”)?

        Although the episode that inspired the article was Matter Of Perspective (season three). My derision was through the roof on that one, and I think I wrote the article shortly after. It’s why that description is so detailed.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On Roddenberry, the issue isn’t so much ideals, but working in enough conflict to make the story interesting to wider audiences. I’m one of the few people who actually enjoyed the first movie, but that was because I was captivated by the story idea. Most people were stone bored.

        That first movie probably would have been a lot more successful if it had been the same story, but with some of the Klingons making it into the ship and getting in the way (providing action oriented conflict) in the Enterprise’s efforts to deal with Vger.

        I have to admit I groaned in the early parts of the Moriarty episode, but as it progressed, it became interesting. Moriarty and his girlfriend just wanted to leave the simulation and be free. The existential aspects made it interesting. (Of course, the fact that the characters kept overlooking that the holodeck was a death trap was a stain throughout the series.)

        I don’t remember much from Matter of Perspective, except that it’s definitely not one of my favorite episodes.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Most people were stone bored.”

        As I recall, I was stoned, but not bored. 😀

        My SF friends and I had been waiting ten years for new Star Trek, it was like manna from heaven. That long reveal of the Enterprise brought tears to my eyes. It’s when one saw it for the third or fourth time that it began to seem… languid.

        “I have to admit I groaned in the early parts of the Moriarty episode, but as it progressed, it became interesting.”

        Oh, Moriarty was a great character — good enough they brought him back.

        It’s that the episode basically nullifies Data if all it takes to create a highly intelligent mind is asking the Enterprise computer to make one.

        The whole thing about Data was that he was unique (give or take an evil brother). The Federation couldn’t do what Dr. Soong did. They didn’t even understand it.

        So how did the Enterprise create Moriarty given just a simple verbal command from Geordi?

        Matter of Perspective… suffice to say it proved very clearly that the holodeck is script magic that fits the current need.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        ST:TMP seems like the kind of movie that would definitely be enhanced by being stoned.

        Checking Wikipedia, I completely forgot that Moriarty happened over two episodes (separated by several seasons). I’m having trouble remembering the first one. I’m sure I’ve seen it. (I’ve seen all of them.) But I’d forgotten about the ship computer just whipping up a sentient being.

        Yeah, if that were possible they would have had tons of Data’s. (In the backstory for ST:Picard, that actually comes to pass, but it was definitely not supposed to be possible during ST:TNG.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I always wondered why (given how they insisted transporters worked) Data could be transported but not replicated. What’s the difference? Had they used the quantum jump idea for transporters, you could transport anything, but replication could still be severely constrained.

        I also wondered why, if, as they said, the holodeck works using transporter/replicator technology, why does it work instantly? No sparkle effect. Even Picard’s tea had a sparkle effect.

        Best not to ask, I guess. 😉

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        It wasn’t just Data. Why couldn’t anybody be replicated? I’m sure the show threw out some explanation at some point, but I’m betting the fact that food could be replicated, without destroying the proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates in it, makes whatever it was vacuous.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Exactly. There were things they supposedly couldn’t replicate. Trilithithm, for one. But if they could transport it, why couldn’t they replicate it? Same thing, according to their own canon.

        It’s almost as if it was just some TV show where they didn’t thoroughly plan out how their stuff worked. 😉

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