After a wait of over two years, Tony Hillerman is back. In The Shape Shifter, Joe Leaphorn is again at center stage. Shape shifters are a part of Native American transformation myths. There is a name in Navajo mythology for their worst kind of witch. In one translation it comes out “skinwalker,” in another “shape shifter.”
Joe Leaphorn, recently retired from the Navajo Tribal Police, is drawn into this latest case when he receives a note with an interesting enclosure from an old acquaintance. Melvin Bork and Leaphorn were fellow westerners who became friends in the east at the FBI academy many years earlier. Their paths had not crossed often over the years. With the note was a picture of a Navajo rug that had appeared in a recent copy of a magazine called Luxury Living. In the magazine picture, the rug was hanging on the wall of an upscale home in Flagstaff. Hillerman’s description of the rug and the story behind its weaving are an added plus. This particular rug, known as “Woven Sorrow,” was priceless, one-of-a-kind and supposedly destroyed in a fire at a trading post many years earlier. The investigation of this fire and the death it caused was one of the first cases Leaphorn worked on as a rookie. He still has unanswered questions about it.
If the rug was authentic and had not been destroyed, perhaps some of those questions demanded answers. As Leaphorn recalled the case, there were other unsolved cases in the area at the time. One particular case, involving grouchy old Grandma Peshlakai and the theft of two buckets of pinyon sap, came to mind. After paying her a visit, he had more questions rather than answers.
Leaphorn finds himself quite alone in this investigation. His colleagues, Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito have recently married and, though back from their honeymoon, are still on leave. Being retired, Leaphorn no longer has access to the resources of the Navajo Tribal Police. As he traces the threads of the investigation, the passage of time has obscured many details but it has also given a few clues. The conclusion may surprise longtime readers of this mystery series.
Because this book does not keep the standard of writing and editing Tony Hillerman set for himself, longtime fans of may not find this their favorite, but they will not want to miss it. Readers new to Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee mystery series may want to read titles as they appear in the series beginning with The Blessing Way, then Dance Hall of the Dead, Listening Woman, and People of Darkness. The Shape Shifter is the eleventh in this series.
Hillerman was brought up among Native Americans and has spent most of his life among them. He expresses in his writing an extensive knowledge of and respect for their customs, religions and folklore.
Tony Hillerman is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America and has received their Edgar Award in 1974 for Dance Hall of the Dead and Grand Master Award in 1991. He has also received the Silver Spur Award for the best novel set in the West.
The Shape Shifter and earlier Hillerman novels are available at the Uinta County Library.
Reviewed by Claire Francis 1/4/2007