Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Series: Navajo Mysteries #20
Length: 336 pages
Publisher: Harper Collins
Date Released: May 5, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Navajo Tribal cops Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito, and their mentor, the legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, investigate two perplexing cases in this exciting Southwestern mystery from the New York Times bestselling author of Spider Woman’s Daughter
Doing a good deed for a relative offers the perfect opportunity for Sergeant Jim Chee and his wife, Officer Bernie Manuelito, to get away from the daily grind of police work. But two cases will call them back from their short vacation and separate them—one near Shiprock, and the other at iconic Monument Valley.
Chee follows a series of seemingly random and cryptic clues that lead to a missing woman, a coldblooded thug, and a mysterious mound of dirt and rocks that could be a gravesite. Bernie has her hands full managing the fallout from a drug bust gone wrong, uncovering the origins of a fire in the middle of nowhere, and looking into an ambitious solar energy development with long-ranging consequences for Navajo land.
Under the guidance of their mentor, retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, Bernie and Chee will navigate unexpected obstacles and confront the greatest challenge yet to their skills, commitment, and courage.
I found myself watching the third season of Longmire at the same time that I was reading Rock with Wings. Even though Longmire is set in Wyoming, the series is filmed in New Mexico, so this is not as far off as one might think.
Hillerman’s Navajo Mysteries series is set in the Four Corners area, where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet. Much of the action in this story centers around Shiprock, New Mexico and the lonely monadnock from which it takes its name.
Ship Rock, the geological feature, is the “rock with wings” of the story. Monadnock turns out to be the name for what’s left of a volcano after the land around it wears away.
There are lots of monadnocks in nearby Monument Valley, where the rest of this story takes place.
But enough about the geography, what about the story?
In Rock with Wings, married Navajo Tribal Police Officers Jim Chee and Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito spend much of the story apart, dealing with family issues in the wake of an aborted vacation attempt. They thought they’d be spending a week with Jim’s cousin Paul in Monument Valley.
Instead Bernie rushes home to deal with yet another one of her younger sister’s arrests, and Jim is stuck, not just because he agreed to help his cousin with the start of his tourist business, but also because he agreed to help the local Navajo Police office out for a few days while they are stretched thin dealing with a Hollywood crew filming in the Valley.
Instead of a vacation, Jim ends up working in the place where the classic film Stagecoach was filmed, in the middle of a Hollywood created zombie apocalypse. He starts out hunting for a missing woman, and trips over an unauthorized burial, complete with bone fragments. It looks like a publicity stunt for the movie, but too many people involved with the production seem to have more to hide than an ill-advised and illegal grave. Unless there’s a fresh body in it.
Bernie, back at home, also finds herself back at work when her sister gets out of jail and goes back to help care for their aging mother. This endless series of crises is a gift that keeps on giving Bernie headaches, but there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable, and reasonably affordable solution.
But Bernie has a case of her own. In the middle of a major drug operation, Bernie pulls over a car filled with one very nervous driver. The guy is so nervous that he offers Bernie $500 and a rifle to make the traffic stop go away. Instead, she arrests the guy, only to discover that there isn’t anything to discover. No drugs, no other weapons, no dead body in the trunk – just some boxes of dirt and a case that the local FBI agents make disappear. Along with the driver.
Jim’s unauthorized grave in Monument Valley and Bernie’s dirt smuggler should not be connected. And they mostly aren’t. But they also kind of are, and not just because both Bernie and Jim use their need for a bit of assistance in both cases to get the Legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn back to his computer providing them with his own prodigious investigative instincts and decades of knowledge of the area.
It turns out that Jim and Bernie will need all the help they can get to solve this set of interlocking and very puzzling, crimes.
Escape Rating A-: On the one hand, it was terrific that this case got Joe Leaphorn at least partially back in the saddle after his near-fatal gunshot at the beginning of Spider Woman’s Daughter (reviewed here). Leaphorn’s shooting is still haunting Bernie – she can’t help but think that if she’d been just a couple of seconds faster she might have prevented it. As the entire Navajo community respects Leaphorn, everyone that Jim or Bernie run into asks after Leaphorn and wishes him well.
But Leaphorn was shot in the head, and his rehabilitation is taking a while. He still can’t speak, but when Bernie rearms him with his computer, he’s able to do research, provide insight, and start to get back in the game. His sometimes cryptic advice provides just the right spark to keep Jim and Bernie on the right track without his taking over either of their cases.
This is a story where Jim and Bernie spend most of the story apart, investigating separately. They aren’t used to being separated, and aren’t used to not having the other available to bounce ideas off of. Because of the geography of the Four Corners region, they truly are separate – cell phone coverage is so sporadic that even the instant communication of the 21st century is usually not available.
It’s damn hard in our era of online-all-the-time for an author to create a reasonable excuse for why people can’t just whip out their cell phones and make their problems disappear, but this one definitely works.
Jim’s case starts in Monument Valley, where his search for a missing woman finds too much – the woman and a grave on Navajo land, along with some campers who are camping out where they shouldn’t be.
As the investigation into the illegal gravesite keeps getting deeper and deeper, Jim finds himself taking a hard look at the movie company filming out in the Valley. While they are bringing much needed dollars to the region, they are also bringing more than their fair share of trouble. And Jim Chee, as is typical for him, refuses to take the simple and easy explanation that the grave was just a publicity stunt. There are too many people on the set that keep dodging him and his questions.
And then the dead bodies start turning up.
Bernie is home near Shiprock, juggling her responsibilities as her mother’s oldest daughter with her duties as a cop. But she can’t get the case of the nervous dirt smuggler out of her head. And she’s right not to.
Bernie’s predicament showcases a conflict that plagues women much more than it does men, and not just in traditional societies. She wants to take care of her mother – who admittedly doesn’t believe she needs taking care of. However, Bernie sees where the old and the new worlds conflict, in that she knows that no matter how responsible she is, or how much she helps, she can’t keep her younger sister on the straight and narrow. If Darleen continues to hang out with the wrong crowd and drink and get herself arrested, there is no way another person can stop her from continuing down the road she’s on. Darleen has to decide not to be an alcoholic for herself.
And Bernie’s job is every bit as important to her as her family. She finds herself often second guessing her choices about having to ask for time off to deal with her family issues. She’s all too aware that the male officers have sisters or wives who are handling those traditional responsibilities for them, where she has to juggle both.
In the end, Bernie saves not only herself but also an old man who becomes the target of a crazed activist. Her police work resolves all the crime-related riddles, including the ones that Chee has turned up over in Monument Valley. It is telling that her family issues have no clear resolution, only more problems to be solved.
Police work may be complicated but the solutions are often clear-cut. Family is just plain messy.