Stargazer by Anne Hillerman
It almost seems impossible that Tony Hillerman’s first Joe Leaphorn detective novel was published fifty years ago. His daughter Anne has carried on his mesmerizing descriptions of the Four Corners area and traditional Navaho history admirably in her sixth continuation book titled Stargazer. Her emphasis has changed over time as Leaphorn has now retired to become a sort of grandfather advisor while leaving the detection to a younger investigative duo--Jim Chee and his wife Bernadette Manuelito. In particular Ms. Kellerman has focused on the development of Bernadette Manuelito, the policewoman wife of Chee, who is now thinking about getting off the beat and applying for promotion to Detective.
In this outing Chee, who is lovingly always called Cheesburger by Bernadette’s mother, takes a back seat by unhappily riding the desk while his superior takes some time away from the job. Meanwhile Bernadette is putting the miles on her “unit” doing the work that always makes up the majority of a law officer’s work.
It all starts in a straight forward fashion with the simple job of serving a warrant for cattle blocking a road. That leads to a dead body in a car, and a complicated entanglement of murder, drugs, a dead baby, and an abused young women. The body turns out to be a brilliant young scientist at a huge radio telescope located in the wilds just west of Las Lunas, NM. Is it murder or suicide? Manuelito is assigned to join the investigation because the estranged wife of the victim is an old college friend of hers The web gets murky when this woman suddenly confesses to killing the scientist. Manuelito believes the woman is lying to protect someone and her investigation into other possible suspects eventually leads her to a deadly climax under a canopy of stars in a remote desert area.
The Hillerman mysteries (from both father and daughter) are pretty standard by most measures, but the central characters are more human and engaging than most whodunnits. Add to this the melding of Navaho lore and the beauty of the descriptions of the southwestern dessert and the books begin start to rise easily into the realm of special. I will admit that familiarity with the southwest, where books are set, has added to my enjoyment. If you have been to the Four Corners, Canyon de Chelly, Window Rock, Shiprock, Chinle, or even just driven I 40 from Albuquerque to Flagstaff, you will be primed to start the series. I know I look for each new addition as it comes out.