Title: People of Darkness
Author: Tony Hillerman
Series: Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee (#4)
Tony Hillerman is a part of my formative years. I discovered him while living in New Mexico, probably during high school. Reading his books are sort of like coming home for me. Even though I lived along north I-25, and the books take place along west I-40, the descriptions of Navajo culture resonates deeply. I can still see the vivid colors and smell the Indian Fry Bread.
In the Navajo language, the word for mole translates to People of Darkness, those who come from below. The book hinges on the origin of the mole fetishes carried by six Navajo men, who survived an oil well explosion in the late 1940s. These men also belonged to a peyote church whose leader had a vision which warned them to stay away from the well on the day of the explosion.
People of Darkness is the introduction of Jim Chee into the world Tony Hillerman has created. Chee is faced with big decisions; FBI or Navajo Police, cop or singer and healer for his people. As he gets pulled deeper into the mystery of a stolen box filled with mementos, a hired assassin and six deaths from cancer, Chee nearly gets killed himself.
Hillerman’s mysteries are kept from being run of the mill by the intersection of white and Navajo culture. Since they’re set on Navajo land which has sketchy boundaries at best, there’s always jurisdictional issues. FBI or Navajo Police? Sheriff or BIA? Some combination of that or someone else? In Hillerman’s books, FBI almost always thinks it’s their jurisdiction.
What I’m most appreciative of are the descriptions of manners and customs. One does not drive up to someone’s home and knock on the door. One parks 30 feet away and waits for someone to come to the door and invite you in.
Navajo religion plays a big part in these books as well. Navajos seek harmony and believe that a person’s illness is caused by being out of harmony. A healer determines which ceremonies must be performed in order to bring the person back into harmony. Cancer isn’t a disease of uranium poisoning through mole fetishes, it’s being out of harmony. It’s Chee’s understanding of this concept and his training to be a singer which helps him understand how the pieces fit together.
People of Darkness is also the introduction of Mary Landon, a white teacher from Wisconsin. Hillerman has Chee and Landon do the dance of inter-racial suspicions before they settle into a friendship. She’s described as the typical white woman Chee knows so well as someone looking for a good time with him because he’s Native American. He’s described as the typical Navajo who is suspicious of anyone white. It’s fun to read how the dynamics change between them as the story progresses.
Tony Hillerman’s mysteries are not deep, most books run right around 200 – 300 pages. They’re a fun way to pass an evening, and some days that’s all anyone can want.