Review: Cave of Bones by Anne Hillerman

Review: Cave of Bones by Anne HillermanCave of Bones by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery
Series: Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #22
Pages: 320
Published by Harper on April 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman brings together modern mystery, Navajo traditions, and the evocative landscape of the desert Southwest in this intriguing entry in the Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito series.

When Tribal Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito arrives to speak at an outdoor character-building program for at-risk teens, she discovers chaos. Annie, a young participant on a solo experience due back hours before, has just returned and is traumatized. Gently questioning the girl, Bernie learns that Annie stumbled upon a human skeleton on her trek. While everyone is relieved that Annie is back, they’re concerned about a beloved instructor who went out into the wilds of the rugged lava wilderness bordering Ramah Navajo Reservation to find the missing girl. The instructor vanished somewhere in the volcanic landscape known as El Malpais. In Navajo lore, the lava caves and tubes are believed to be the solidified blood of a terrible monster killed by superhuman twin warriors.

Solving the twin mysteries will expose Bernie to the chilling face of human evil. The instructor’s disappearance mirrors a long-ago search that may be connected to a case in which the legendary Joe Leaphorn played a crucial role. But before Bernie can find the truth, an unexpected blizzard, a suspicious accidental drowning, and the arrival of a new FBI agent complicate the investigation.

While Bernie searches for answers in her case, her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee juggles trouble closer to home. A vengeful man he sent to prison for domestic violence is back—and involved with Bernie’s sister Darleen. Their relationship creates a dilemma that puts Chee in uncomfortable emotional territory that challenges him as family man, a police officer, and as a one-time medicine man in training.

Anne Hillerman takes us deep into the heart of the deserts, mountains, and forests of New Mexico and once again explores the lore and rituals of Navajo culture in this gripping entry in her atmospheric crime series.

My Review:

Once upon a time, a long time ago, but not in a galaxy far, far away, I used to have a very long commute to work. I listened to a LOT of audiobooks, and one of the series I discovered was the Leaphorn & Chee series by Tony Hillerman. Mysteries are perfect in audio because you can’t thumb to the end to find out whodunit. And the series was particularly good because it is read by the inestimable George Guidall. If you like audio and have not listened to a book read by him you’ve missed a real treat.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the series ended when the author died. That ending turned out to be more of a pause, as several years later his daughter revived the series by switching the focus. In Spider Woman’s Daughter, the “Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn is struck down in the opening scene, and Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito, with the assistance of her husband Sergeant Jim Chee, takes over the investigation while Leaphorn begins the long, slow road to recovery.

The torch passes with the perspective, and the series has continued with Bernie becoming the principal character, while Chee appears nearly as frequently, but ironically still kind of the second-banana that he was to Leaphorn. Leaphorn provides consultation and occasional welcome, if sometimes cryptic, clues.

As has turned out to be the case with this continuation of the series, Bernie and Chee are stuck in different places, handling different situations when Bernie finds herself in the middle of an investigation that keeps her hopping all over the Four Corners Reservation and the surrounding area while Chee is in Santa Fe for a training class while keeping an eye on Bernie’s sister Darleen’s latest attempt to stay on the straight and narrow.

And, as usual, just when it seems that their cases can’t connect, the long arm of coincidence reaches out and links the case that Bernie is in the middle of with a few little errands that the Captain asked Chee to take care of while he was in Santa Fe.

It’s a mess that just keeps getting messier and messier, at least until Bernie and Chee, but mostly Bernie, with a few hints from Leaphorn, finally manage to get the disparate problems all wrapped up in one neat package.

Just in time for the crises in Bernie’s personal life to boil over.

Escape Rating A-: I loved this series back when I was listening to it, and I still do. But if this combination of mystery with exploration of the problems that plague the Navajo Tribal Police (as well as the issues that plague the tribe itself) sound like your cup of tea, and you don’t want to go all the way back to the very beginning, starting with Spider Woman’s Daughter will provide plenty of background to the characters, the situation, and the place.

Something that will fascinate long-time readers of the series is the way that the series is set in what is sometimes referred to as the “Perpetual Now”. If Leaphorn had aged chronologically from his first introduction, he would be over 100. Instead, he seems to be in his 60s, while Chee is still in his 30s. And all the updates to police methods of the 21st century, markedly absent in the early books set in the 1970s, are both a help and hindrance to everything in 2018.

There is a bit of a contrivance in the way that the author keeps Bernie and Chee apart during their cases, forcing them to rely on their own resources and not able to lean on each other. The coincidences that bring their cases back together at the end sometimes have a very long arm.

At the same time, this allows us to see one side, and the bigger part at that, from Bernie’s solo perspective. She is always caught between a rock and a hard place, between her duty as a police officer and her duty to her mother and sister. That conflict is a perspective we never saw when it was just Leaphorn and Chee, and it helps ground the series and keep the characters feeling human and real.

The case in Cave of Bones starts out a bit convoluted and keeps adding more and more parts and conundrums as it goes. While it is not difficult for the reader to keep straight, it does feel like the mountain of both Bernie’s and Chee’s tasks and duties keeps growing and growing.

It all starts with a missing person. And it ends with one, too. But it middles in helicopter parenting, scared teenagers, embezzlement, illegal antiquities, family squabbling and grand theft auto. And it’s a marvelous ride all along the way.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Cave of Bones by Anne Hillerman

  1. I read all the Tony books and enjoyed them immensely. (I’ve never tried them as audiobooks, tho.) I’ve been collecting the Anne books, but haven’t actually read one yet. You’ve given them good reviews, but I suppose I’m still hesitant they won’t have the same magic for me (ahem, Todd McCaffrey) or that I won’t remember enough from the original books to move forward seamlessly. I guess I’ll break down and dive in one day.

    1. The magic is different. In some ways, I like the new ones better because of Bernie being front and center. And I’ll admit I found a great deal of resonance between the way that Bernie handles Leaphorn’s injury at the beginning of Spider Woman’s Daughter and what the author herself must have gone through picking up her dad’s work. YMMV.
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