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SPIDER WOMAN’S DAUGHTER by Anne Hillerman: Book Review

Navajo Nation Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito is enjoying a quiet staff breakfast at a small restaurant near Window Rock, Arizona.  As Bernadette and retired police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn leave the breakfast and walk to their vehicles a shot rings out and Leaphorn falls to the pavement, critically wounded.

Anne Hillerman’s first novel follows the path paved by her late father, the greatly admired mystery author Tony Hillerman.  The characters will be familiar to those who have read the previous Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels, but in Spider Woman’s Daughter it’s Bernie Manuelito who takes the lead role.

It’s hard for the police to find any motive for the shooting.  Leaphorn was well-respected by all members of the community, including those he apprehended.  Bilaganna, or revenge, is not a part of traditional Navajo culture, but it’s possible that whoever attempted to kill Leaphorn is either a white person or else an Indian who has fallen far from the values of the Navajo.

Although she has been taken off the case because she is a witness to the shooting, as is police procedure, Bernie cannot leave the shooting alone.  She continues to ask questions in her search for the shooter.  She tells Captain Largo, “This case is personal.  I promised I’d find whoever shot him.”  Largo responds, “I don’t want to have to fire you.  But I will if you can’t take orders.”

So instead of investigating the crime, Bernie is sent off to find Louisa Bourebonette, the woman Leaphorn lives with, and any relatives Leaphorn may have.  But Louisa isn’t at home or at work, and Bernie can’t find any relatives, so she decides to look for Leaphorn’s killer despite Largo’s orders.

The only possibly pertinent thing Bernie finds at Leaphorn’s house is a large envelope addressed to a Dr. John Collingsworth at the AIRC, a museum and gallery in Santa Fe.  She drives to Santa Fe to give Collingsworth the envelope, but he is disappointed when he opens it.  It’s Leaphorn’s bill, not the report he expected.  The AIRC is anticipating a huge donation of Indian works.  Given Leaphorn’s investigative background plus his knowledge of Indian pottery and rugs, Collingsworth had hired him to look over the valuations of the items donated to see if they were realistic.  But Leaphorn’s report is missing.

In addition to her unauthorized police work, Bernie is dealing with her own family issues.  Her sister Darleen and their mother are living together, an arrangement that sounds good on paper but isn’t working well.   Their mother is showing early signs of dementia and shouldn’t be left alone, but Darleen can’t be trusted to stay with her and resents her role as a caretaker.  She views Bernie as having it all–a loving husband in Jim Chee, an exciting job, and no real responsibility for their mother.

It’s a pleasure to read Ms. Hillerman’s debut novel.  Her characters are real, and her knowledge of the lore of the Diné (Navajo) people is profound.  She seamlessly weaves this information into the plot, and the reader feels as if she/he is taking a tour of the Navajo Nation (Naabeehó Bináhásdzo), a fascinating place to be.  Anne Hillerman has written what I hope will be the first in a long series about the continuing adventures of the Navajo police in general and Bernadette Manuelito in particular.

You can read more about Anne Hillerman at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.