He knew Leaphorn’s wife had died. He’d heard the man was having trouble coping with that. He’s heard – everybody in the Navajo Tribal Police had heard – that Leaphorn had quit the force. Retired. So what was he doing in this affair? How official was this? Chee exhaled, taking another second for thought. He thought, quit or not, this is still Joe Leaphorn. Our legendary Leaphorn.
Ya te’eh. A Thief of Time features Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and is ranked #69 on the CWA’s top 100 crime novels. Having been published in 1989, it is two years past my arbitrary personal finishing line for ‘classic crime’ – 1987 – so by reviewing it I am making an exception. Don’t be too angry.
Leaphorn and Chee seem to have little in common apart from their Navajo heritage. Leaphorn, the older man, is the more modern in outlook, an anthropologist by training. Although something of legend in Tribal Police, he is on the brink of early retirement after the unexpected death of his wife Emma. Young policeman Jim Chee, is a hatathali, a Medicine Man, ‘a modern man built upon traditional Navajo‘, he is struggling to reconcile the demands of love with the demands of his chosen lifestyle. The two cops join forces when the cases they are investigating turn out to share a common factor – ancient pottery.
Dr Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, an archeologist specialising in the Anasazi people who populated the Four Corners country of southern Utah, southwestern Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona from about A.D. 200 to A.D. 1300 (thanks Wikipedia), has been missing for almost a month. Dr Friedman-Bernal was on the trail of a career-defining discovery – she believed she had identified one specific Anasazi potter, with a distinctive touch, and even worked out where he or she lived. Something about her case piques Leaphorn’s interest and he decides to devote his remaining few weeks to locating her.
Meanwhile, Chee is on the trail of a stolen backhoe (stolen from right under his nose, in fact), and stumbles across the corpses of the two culprits at an Anasazi burial site. They were part of an extensive network of illegal diggers selling pots on to collectors – Thieves of Time.
Leaphorn is convinced that the cases are connected, and persuades Chee to help him out. The trail of potsherds leads them from the ancient carved-out dwellings of the Anasazi to the revivalist tent of Christian Navajo preacher Slick Nakai, to millionaire Mormon landowner Harrison Houk, to rich collectors in New York, and finally back to Anasazi ruins.
A Thief of Time is probably more memorable for its setting than its mystery. Not that I want to underrate the story – it’s smoothly written, with two intriguing lead characters and a surprising conclusion – but I think it is really notable for its sense of place. This is a hard, dry land, and feels immense. Leaphorn and Chee cover mile after mile in their pursuit of the case, from Crown Point in New Mexico to Bluff in Utah on dusty roads made perilous by chugholes, ruts, tumbleweeds and sand.
Thanks to technology, you can try driving these roads yourself. Go on, have a look (disclaimer: links to Google Street View may not work).
A Thief of Time
First published in the US, 1989, Harper & Row
This edition, Penguin Books, 1993
Final destination: A keeper