Typecasting isn't just an actor's worst nightmare; fiction writers can also feel cornered by their fans' craving for more of the same thing. Whenever an established novelist tries something different, there's usually career hell to pay. John le Carre once took a brief holiday from his bleak spy fiction to write an elegant modern romance. Remember The Naive and Sentimental Lover? Probably not. It takes guts to strike out into new territory. So my hat is off to Tony Hillerman.
Although Finding Moon (HarperCollins, $24) sounds as if it could be another installment in his popular Navajo crime-and-culture series, it isn't. Set in Asia during the final weeks of the Vietnam War, the novel is an exotic ragtag adventure with some unabashedly spiritual things to say about guilt and self-forgiveness.
In the spring of 1975, Malcolm ''Moon'' Mathias, a middle-aged newspaper editor in Durance, Colo., gets a call informing him that his mother has collapsed at the Los Angeles airport. He discovers that she had been on her way to the Philippines to bring home the child of Moon's younger brother Ricky, a freelance and freewheeling pilot in Vietnam who, along with his Cambodian wife, was recently killed in a suspicious helicopter crash.
With his mother ill, Moon feels obligated to fly to Manila himself. But once he arrives, he's told that his niece is still trapped in the killing fields of Cambodia. So Moon sets out to find her with an old Chinese man and a Dutch folk-art dealer determined to rescue her missionary brother. Along the way they pick up a soldier of fortune and a South Vietnamese sailor. While it's an overly familiar plot quixotic group of misfits risking the gravest danger to do the right thing it's still a grabber. Then Hillerman fumbles, badly, when the trip into Cambodia turns out to be...well, tame. And the conclusion, though satisfying, seems rushed. You almost get the feeling that Hillerman suddenly had his fill of Southeast Asia.
Finding Moon proves Hillerman can write good fiction without calling in the Tribal Police. He ought to do it again. But next time he shouldn't be in such a mad rush to get home. C+