Friday, June 21, 2019

“The Tale Teller” by Anne Hillerman – The Merging Rivers

Though Anne Hillerman specialized in non-fiction literature for a long time, I believe she made a wise decision in trying her hand at writing novels, gifting the world with the Leaphorn and Chee series.

In The Tale Teller, we follow Joe Leaphorn as he embarks on a dark journey to retrieving a tribal dress, all while Jim Chee and Officer Bernie Manuelito try to crack a series of burglaries culminating in a homicide.

Anne Hillerman's Realm of Crime and Superstition

When thinking about criminal investigations and how they are led, I'm certain most of us imagine fact-based proceedings such as evidence collection, witness statements, and all this other jazz we've seen and read about a million times in popular culture. Generally-speaking, long gone are the days of superstitious and traditional lines of thinking being taken into account. However, I think we can all agree those elements can spice things up a little bit, and even if real life has little place for them, they definitely have a home in fiction, as is the case in The Tale Teller by Anne Hillerman.

Continuing the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novel series, it begins with the former of the two being embarked on a strange quest: the retrieval of a traditional dress once gifted to the Navajo. What started as a relatively innocent job quickly takes a turn towards the darkness as Joe's investigation leads him to a suspect, dead under mysterious circumstances. As if it wasn't enough, Leaphorn begins to receives warnings, or perhaps even threats, to be careful for some form of witchcraft is afoot. There is a bigger picture to this, but Joe just can't see it yet.

Simultaneously, Jim Chee and officer Bernie Manuelito are leading an investigation into a series of burglaries, ultimately leading them a homicide. With the FBI getting involved, the situation grows more complicated by the second for everyone involved, and while none of them know it, our three protagonists are walking roads bound to merge at some point, and the ultimate puzzle certainly promises to be larger than the sum of its parts. When crime, superstition, and tradition collide in the brutal Southwest desert, no one can walk out unscathed.

Mystery Steeped in Tradition

First and foremost, this novel strives to be an investigative thriller before anything else. Looking at it from this aspect, I have to say Hillerman did an excellent job at developing the two main investigation threads in a manner which kept me interested in both of them equally. We switch fairly often between the two, but from the very start we can't help but trying to think of the parallels between them and how they might eventually collide. From the reader's perspective, there's always something to keep your mind occupied as you move further through the plot.

The mysteries themselves, while they do have a few cliches to them, are still top-notch in their presentation and unravelling. It shows the author took great care in ensuring there would be no weak links in her chain of logic; every clue takes us a bit closer to the answer, creating new connections for us to latch onto. While I do think avid readers of the genre will be able to figure out most of it out before the end, I can guarantee it won't be without a good amount of brain-work.

What makes the investigations truly stand out from other books, however, is how they are connected to Navajo history and tradition. Hillerman is excellent at finding elements from the culture to include as important plot points, immersing us in this world without really having to stop the action or ever turning into a history book. If anything, it made me want to do some research on my own time; I think having some sort of familiarity with this world would make the story even more relatable, easier to connect with, and thus, more enjoyable.

The Long Walk of Our Heroes

As I mentioned before, this novel is first and foremost an investigation mystery. With this being said, it is certainly not the sole major driving force of this novel. To begin with, Hillerman takes a good amount of time to delve into the lives of our three main characters, revealing more about their inner struggles and the growth they are ceaselessly going through. Thankfully, these segments are paced well enough in their length and presence so we never see big interruptions to the main action. Rather, the moments in which we become better-acquainted with them only serve to make following sections more impactful.

I particularly enjoyed the time spent discussing how Joe manages with his brain injury, the depth to which it affects him in all facets of life. His relationship with Louisa (as well as her cat) lends itself to some comical, heartwarming, but also tragic moments at times and helps to build Joe up as a very real person. While I personally didn't see him grow, Hillerman made it quite apparent Jim Chee had walked a very long and complicated road himself.

Now, this is where I should say there is probably a drawback to directly starting with this book in the series. While each novel stand on its own, I felt as if I had missed quite a bit of character and relationship development. As a result, there were times when I was a bit puzzled as to what may have happened to the characters in the past and whether or not it would affect the story. Thankfully, in the end it wasn't a big deal by any means, but I am certain those who are already familiar with the series will get more out of it.

The Final Verdict

The Tale Teller by Anne Hillerman is a very solid and captivating murder mystery novel simmered in Navajo tradition and history, led by complex characters who have benefited from many books of development. If you enjoy investigative thrillers which also dive into local Native-American history, then this is without a doubt a novel you ought to give a chance to.

Anne Hillerman

Personal site

Anne Hillerman is a journalist and New York Times best-selling author from New Mexico. She has worked as an arts editor, an editorial page editor, as well as a writer for The Santa Fe New Mexican and the Albuquerque Journal. She was the recipient of the 2014 Spur Award for Best First Novel, for her book titled Spider Woman's Daughter. Her other notable works include Song of the Lion and Gardens of Santa Fe.

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