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Song of the Lion: 09/16/17
Song of the Lion by Anne Hillerman is the twenty-first of the Navajo Mystery series. I know now the publisher has renamed the series "Leaphorn and Chee" but it's not a good name for the series given the strong roll Bernadette Manuelito plays in them. Really if the series were named for characters, it should be Chee and Manuelito.
This volume opens with Bernadette at a basketball game. She's off duty but she's the first to respond to a loud noise that causes the car alarms in the parking lot to go off. A car bomb has gone off.
Since the car belongs to a high profile negotiator, here to work out a land deal to expand a resort that serves the Grand Canyon. Tempers were already hot before the bombing. Now it looks like the negotiator needs a bodyguard. Jim Chee is called in for the job.
It's a trio effort with Bernadette investigating the bombing, Chee providing protection and looking for potential motives among the delegates, and Leaphorn looking through older cases to see the bigger picture. It takes all three of them to tie it all together. If you're an observant reader, you'll solve it before they do and it won't matter because it's still a well written book with well crafted characters.
Having read all but one of Tony Hillerman's books (I somehow missed reading The Fallen Man and all of Anne Hillerman's additions to the series, I can say with certainty that she is better at bringing the characters to life. Perhaps it's that she grew up around her father's work and the people who consulted on later books in the series but Anne Hillerman seems to have a better grasp at how as Diné, Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito would live their lives and approach the work of solving these crimes.
Jim Chee, introduced in the fourth book, People of Darkness (1980) for two reasons. The first was to be a character that Hillerman owned the rights to (as the first book had been optioned for a film). The second was to atone for how un-Navajo Joe Leaphorn was as described in the first three books. Jim Chee, though younger, was more traditional, and was training to be a hataalii at the time.
Because of Chee's studies and his traditional beliefs, the middle third of the series focused on traditional ceremonies and stories. It was why Talking God was used as a text book in an art class I took in college. But in retrospect, Chee's devotion is overdone in that it is done to prove to a non-Navajo audience that he is Navajo, in the same way that Christian characters in fiction prove their Christianity by quoting bible verses.
In The Wailing Wind (book 15, 2002), Bernadette Manuelito was introduced. She is just as traditional as Jim Chee; she's a fluent speaker of Diné bizaad, she knows the stories, her mother is a renowned weaver of rugs, but she's a layperson. She has never had formal training in the Ways as Chee has but she believes in them; they form the basis of how she approaches the world.
In her introductory book, she might as well be a robot — a superstitious robot. On facing a dead man in a car in an out of the way part, she is almost incapable of doing her job as a Navajo Police Officer because of her beliefs about death. As first written she was a huge step backwards for the series.
Before Bernadette Manuelito's introduction, Tony Hillerman left that level of superstition to the old folks he populated his books with. In nearly every book, especially in the first half of the series, if there is a murder, it's blamed on either skinwalkers or chindis (witchcraft or grudge ghosts) — and yet not once has the series actually taken a paranormal bent.
Anne's additions to the series take a different approach. Gone are the over the top displays of tradition and devotion. Gone as well are the superstitions. The potential motives behind the bombing are more grounded in real world, human issues: family strife, poverty, living conditions, language barriers, prejudice, drug abuse, and so forth.