If, like me, you enjoy off-beat mysteries with unusual settings the name ‘Hillerman’ is probably a familiar one. As in Tony Hillerman, the author of the Leaphorn and Chee novels set on the Navaho Nation in the American Southwest.
The Leaphorn and Chee stories are some of my favorites; with strong characters, good solid mysteries, and tough resolutions requiring everything the protagonists have to make through it to the end. And the setting! The Southwest itself is one of the characters I mentioned; for Hillerman invested the locations with personality and linked his human characters strongly to them. A couple of years ago, driving up what used to be HWY 666 (now 491), I got a personal look at the beautiful Navaho land and it felt as if the rock formations and mountains were old friends.
Yeah, I really enjoyed those books. But Tony Hillerman passed away some time ago and it seemed unlikely there would be any more. What I didn’t know was Hillerman had a daughter; Anne Hillerman. A writer herself, if not of fiction, Anne apparently decided she was good enough to take up her father’s mantle and continue the storyline of Leaphorn and Chee. But is she?
Her first novel “Spider Woman’s Daughter” provides an interesting answer. Yes, it is a first novel with some first novel problems, but it is clear she got some very good editing. It is also clear she made some good choices.
The first good choice is using ‘Bernie’ Manuelito as the major viewpoint character. All of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee novels were first person (except for some third-person scene setting) and he would jump the POV around between his protagonists as he told the story in bits and chunks, often giving the reader a better idea of the big picture than his characters. Anne Hillerman used a similar strategy, but focused on Bernie with some use of Bernie’s husband Jim Chee’s POV. Although her father had used Bernie for a POV before, it was rare and short.
This means Anne was starting a new chapter in the storytelling, where the story teller is a woman, by focusing on the one woman detective character in the stories; and one her father had given short-shrift. It was a gutsy move and an effective one.
The second good choice was shooting Joe Leaphorn in the first few pages of the story, putting him in the hospital where his condition deteriorates. This meant not only was Leaphorn himself a part of the central mystery, but also meant Leaphorn–the great detective of Tony Hillerman’s stories who always figures it out–was in no condition to do the figuring.
Once again, both gutsy and effective. Forcing Bernie and Chee to man up (or woman up) and solve the mystery on their lonesome. (Well, aside from the usual FBI interferences, police procedures, and family issues.)
Another good choice is imbued in the mystery itself. I’m not going to give you any spoilers, but the mystery is built on one of her father’s earlier novels; continuing a story once thought over and done.
Perhaps not such a gutsy choice, but still an effective one; tying her Leaphorn and Chee story into her father’s oeuvre and establishing its place in the meta-story and character arcs of the Leaphorn and Chee series.
I could nitpick a little about cardboard antagonists and some red herrings that were a little too red. But I won’t. I could claim she pulled off the tough ending well enough for a good mention, but you need to decide that for yourself. Let me instead simply say: if you like Tony Hillerman’s work there is a good chance you will enjoy Anne Hillerman’s “Spider Woman’s Daughter”.