Tony Hillerman: A Thief of Time

A_Thief_of_TimeHe 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.


Anasazi petroglyphs. The little flute-playing guy with the TV aerial on his head is called Kokopelli, and is apparently a very common figure in their carvings.

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).

Tony Hillerman
A Thief of Time
First published in the US, 1989, Harper & Row
This edition, Penguin Books, 1993
210 pages
ISBN: 9780140177282
Source: Abebooks
Final destination: A keeper

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Witness Statements and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tony Hillerman: A Thief of Time

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Hillerman most definitely wrote with a strong sense of place, Rich. Like you, I also like the mysteries in this series. But it’s the place and the culture that set this series apart for me.


  2. tracybham says:

    This is an author I want to try but never have. Glad you had good things to say about the book. When I get there, I will either read the first Joe Leaphorn (1970) or the first Jim Chee (1980).


  3. JJ says:

    Hillerman is another author who I enjoyed a book by and then simply never went back to – though in this case is was Dance Hall of the Dead that I read. A bit like you here, I thought the setting (and the historical and cultural background) was wonderful but the mystery somewhat pedestrian. I also learned that the word “fetish” doesn’t always mean what you think it means…!


  4. An author I always mean to read more of. I always loved the title Dance Hall of the Dead, so I may go with that one first.


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