Will success spoil Tony Hillerman? Apparently not. His highly convincing series about the Navajo Tribal Police, begun 20 years ago, has been getting plenty of overdue, admiring attention from the press lately. His most recent books A Thief of Time, Talking God have even become best-sellers. But, now that he's a Big Name, Hillerman doesn't seem to be getting lazy (like Robert B. Parker) or grandiose (like P.D. James). Instead, he continues to write the same sort of gently impressive mystery fiction he has always written: a little slow, a little somber, yet gripping too thanks to the steady uncoiling of grim secrets, the constant tension between Navajo mysticism and contemporary American values.
In this 11th tale of the vast Navajo reservation, young Officer Jim Chee quite logically arrests Ashie Pinto, an elderly shaman, for the fatal shooting of a Navajo cop. After all, Pinto is found drunk, with the murder gun, near the crime scene. But soon both Chee (a would-be shaman himself) and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (older, more worldly) are having doubts about the crystal-gazer's guilt. How did penniless Pinto come to be 200 miles away from his home with $100, a bottle of scotch, and a pistol? What about the old man's longtime role as an unofficial authority on local history and legends? And is there a connection to the recent disappearance of an unpleasant, ambitious University of New Mexico professor?
As always, Hillerman fills out the policework here with starkly memorable landscapes and firm nuances of character like Jim Chee's ever-changing friendship with Janet Pete, the Navajo-born, city-trained lawyer who (by forgivable coincidence) winds up defending Ashie Pinto. So, though Coyote Waits features one of the series' least dramatic plots, it's sturdy work from an incorruptible craftsman and cause for quiet celebration.