Friday, June 17, 2011

Book Review: Dance Hall of the Dead

Tony Hillerman
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

About fifteen years ago, I read three Tony Hillerman books in a row. I really liked the first, the second a little less, and, by the third, I have to admit I found them getting kind of repetitive.

I’m glad it’s been fifteen years, because reading Dance Hall of the Dead was like reading Hillerman again for the first time. Refreshed.

Hillerman’s novels are set in the Four Corners area of the U.S. where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah all meet. It’s a dusty, desert-y region home to several Indian reservations – Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma, among others. It’s also home to archaeological digs and (in the book, at least) a hippie commune.

Dance Hall was one of Hillerman’s earliest novels, and the second to use his really appealing protagonist Joe Leaphorn, a detective with the Navajo police.

Leaphorn is called in to help when a Zuni boy is found murdered and the boy’s best friend, a Navajo, goes missing. Zuni (which Hillerman spells Zuñi) and Navajo people are by no means friendly, usually, but in this case Leaphorn has to cooperate with the Zuni police and work with both Zuni and Navajo witnesses. He learns more about Zuni religion and tradition than he ever wanted to when it really starts to look like the Zuni boy was killed by a kachina – a Zuni ancestor spirit.

This book makes you very conscious of tempo. Joe Leaphorn moves at his own speed. He takes his time watching a location from far away through binoculars before going in to investigate close up. He works his way very slowly around to asking the questions at the core of his investigation. He’s very happy to let many seconds or even minutes pass in silence when he’s talking to someone.

It sometimes seems to be inefficient and slow, but he’s actually getting quite a lot figured out with this technique. So the investigation and the story progress deceptively quickly. And, towards the end, when Leaphorn gets closer and closer to solving the case, the story picks up speed quite smoothly and expertly, so where you originally felt like you were reading a kind of peaceful, slow-moving story, suddenly you find yourself rapidly turning pages and in the midst of quite a lot of suspense and Leaphorn in the midst of real physical danger.

It is really interesting to learn about Zunis through the eyes of a Navajo; partly because it means you end up learning about Navajos too. And Hillerman’s writing is calm and clear, just like his main character’s thinking. It never is self-conscious or gets in the way of the story.

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