A Reintroduction to Favorite Characters

Rock with Wings: A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel, by Anne Hillerman, (Harper), 336 pages, release date 5 May, 2015

I loved Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, featuring a pair of tribal police working on the Navajo reservation. The mysteries were top-notch, but even more than that, I enjoyed being introduced to a new (for me) culture through Hillerman’s books. Hillerman had a knack for helping his readers think along with his characters, sliding them into a world view that might be very removed from their own.

When Hillerman died, I regretted that I wouldn’t have more adventures with Leaphorn and Chee ahead of me. Then in 2013 his daughter Anne Hillerman came out with Spider Woman’s Daughter, featuring Leaphorn and Chee. I confess I didn’t read that book, much as I would have enjoyed more time with the two tribal police officers—I was uncomfortable with someone else taking on these characters, worried that her characterizations would fall short of what I’d come to expect or that they wouldn’t ring true.

Now Anne Hillerman’s second novel in the series, Rock with Wings, is out. I decided to take a chance on her characterizations, and I’m glad I did. Anne Hillerman’s understanding of these different characters and the forces that motivate them is dead-on. Leaphorn (even with a head injury that’s left him aphasic) is terse and brilliant, noting details and understanding their significance long before anyone else. Chee still straddles the traditional and the modern. And Chee’s now-wife, Bernadette Manuelito, is fierce and quick to act.

The first two thirds of the novel were deeply satisfying, with clues parceled out one at a time, a satisfying range of interactions among characters, and the introduction of some interesting outsiders working on a zombie film being shot in the area.

The mysteries are a bit diffuse, but each provides characters with plenty of motivation. Manuelito can’t understand why the FBI refuses to take action against a man who attempted to bribe her to avoid a vehicle search (although he had nothing but two boxes of dirt in the trunk of his car)—and later investigates the immolation of this same car at a site where skinwalkers have been sighted. Chee is on loan to another police department and dealing both with new coworkers and “Hollywood types,” as well as a newly discovered grave site that may or may not be a promotional stunt for the film. Leaphorn is just beginning to use a laptop computer, which allows him to move beyond simple yes/no responses when communicating with others. He’s working online to try to pin down some of the more ambiguous clues Chee’s encountered.

My primary complaint is that the latter part of the novel changes pace and style. The denouement comes not through detective work, but through two  suspects suddenly deciding to tell their own stories in detail—even though doing so is more apt to hurt than help them. This wraps things up quickly, but I would have preferred that Hillerman had taken the time to let her characters uncover this information in a more satisfying way.

All said, Rock with Wings will prove a satisfactory read for fans of Tony Hillerman’s work. Anne Hillerman, if not quite matching his skills as a writer, is certainly doing his characters justice.

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