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Book Review of Talking God (Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee, Bk 9)

Talking God (Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee, Bk 9)
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Helpful Score: 2

There are three things one can expect from a Hillerman mystery: a story that would make no sense without its rock-solid base of Navaho culture; a tale that moves within the rhythms of real time; and an intricate plot that calls for the particular skills of his two detectives, Jim Chee, shaman and officer of the Navaho Tribal Police, and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, older, slower, and wiser. Talking God has all of these things in a plot that absolutely defies summary. Leaphorn and Chee track different paths for different crimes and both end up in the wilds of Washington, D.C., ostensibly on vacation. Instead of the sweet scent of the Southwest, Hillerman has a good time pitting his detectives against the "City of Navy Blue Suits." Welcome as a returning presence is winsome Navaho attorney Janet Pete, who contributes both to the structure of the mystery and to Chee's emotional disharmony.

Here he sets Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee in Washington, D.C., as each uses vacation time to follow separate cases that will connect in a clash of violence at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. Chee has come at the request of Janet Pete, a Navajo lawyer with a case that involves a ceremonial mask of Yeibichai, or Talking God, maternal grandfather of all the other Navajo gods, and a museum curator named Henry Highhawk, who claims Navajo ancestry and wants to be included on tribal rolls. Leaphorn's interest rises from a puzzling homicide case--an unidentified corpse found near Gallup, N.M., with a note mentioning a pending Yeibichai ceremony. Just as Leaphorn's tenacity reveals the dead man was a leftist Chilean terrorist, Highhawk is killed (in a spooky late-night scene in the Museum) and the pivotal role of the Talking God mask comes into play. Leaphorn's grief over the recent death of his wife, Chee's sorrow at the end of an impossible love affair, both men's sense of alienation in the capital city's urban sophistication suffuse this slim, somewhat contrived, tale with palpable melancholy.

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