Monday, July 13, 2009

Sunday Book Notes -- The Sinister Pig, by Tony Hillerman

The desert southwest is a primary character in many of Tony Hillerman's mysteries, which is one reason I generally enjoy them. I grew up on the Western slope of Colorado, where the red soil is dotted with scrubby green trees, and snow peaks tower all around. It was truly a paradise. And yet the country that speaks to my soul is a little further west and south: Canyon country, the area around the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and south, on into the Sonoran desert. This area, the Four Corners region, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, is the locale for most of Hillerman's novels, including The Sinister Pig.

Like Hillerman's other mysteries, this novel features Navajo Tribal Police detective Jim Chee and his now retired boss, Joe Leaphorn. The plot involves old, abandoned oil and gas lines in the New Mexico desert, which are being used for sinister purposes. The story also continues the developing relationship between Chee and Border Patrol agent Bernie Manuelito.

This was one of my least favorite Hillerman mysteries. I'm not going to give away the plot here, even though it is quite obvious from the beginning who the bad guys are and what their game is. Revealing the evil characters early is a deliberate tactic on Hillerman's part, but it makes the plot seem a little too rote and obvious as the events play out.

But that isn't the biggest problem with the book. Hillerman seems to have an ax to grind, which gets in the way of the novel. As he writes on the acknowledgments page, billions of dollars owed to the Tribal Trust Funds are unaccounted for. Chee, Leaphorn, and half a dozen other characters dutifully recite the fact that this money has been mismanaged or stolen by the Federal government. And yet, despite Hillerman's efforts to make this part of the story, the missing funds do not really play a role in the novel. Thus, all the references to the missing money seem more like a diatribe than an intrinsic and fluid part of a novel. More effective are Hillerman's underlying arguments about the futility and injustice of a drug war that targets small -time drug users rather than the big money smugglers, and his characterization of illegal aliens as hard-working people simply searching for a better life.

Even the landscape failed to move me as much as it usually does in a Chee/Leaphorn novel. Although Chee's travels take him from Window Rock to Gallup, Lordsburg, Deming and on down to the Mexican border -- drives I've made many times myself -- I suspect that I visualized the shimmering landscape more from my own experience than from the power of his description.

I also wasn't terribly thrilled that the female characters in the book are so darned stupid. Bernie the Border Patrol agent seems naive and incapable, blundering around like the girl who goes in the closet in the stereotypical horror movie. A woman like this wouldn't last a month on the border. And she is one of two young women who need rescuing in the book.

For me, the most successful part of The Sinister Pig was Hillerman's handling of multiple viewpoints. The most memorable and chilling scenes involve the murder of a young woman that takes place early in the book, seen first through the eyes of the assassin and then by the man who ordered her death. Unfortunately, the rest of the book doesn't live up to those chapters.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not a die-hard Hillerman fan. This is the sixteenth book in this series, and I've probably read only four or five of them. Someone who has followed the series from the beginning and has grown accustomed to the characters, landscape, and Navajo customs may be more enamored of this book than I was.

It was a quick, generally enjoyable read, great for the beach or poolside, but not my favorite Hillerman work.

Rating: 2 Kachinas.

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