Review: The Sacred Bridge by Anne Hillerman

Review: The Sacred Bridge by Anne HillermanThe Sacred Bridge (Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #25) by Anne Hillerman
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, thriller
Series: Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito #25
Pages: 320
Published by Harper on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

"A fine legacy series . . . in the spirit of her late father, Tony."--Booklist
An ancient mystery resurfaces with ramifications for the present day in this gripping chapter in the Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito series from New York Times bestselling author Anne Hillerman.
Sergeant Jim Chee's vacation to beautiful Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell has a deeper purpose. He's on a quest to unravel a sacred mystery his mentor, the Legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, stumbled across decades earlier.
Chee's journey takes a deadly turn when, after a prayerful visit to the sacred Rainbow Bridge, he spots a body floating in the lake. The dead man, a Navajo with a passion for the canyon's ancient rock art, lived a life filled with many secrets. Discovering why he died and who was responsible involves Chee in an investigation that puts his own life at risk.
Back in Shiprock, Officer Bernadette Manuelito is driving home when she witnesses an expensive sedan purposely kill a hitchhiker. The search to find the killer leads her to uncover a dangerous chain of interconnected revelations involving a Navajo Nation cannabis enterprise.
But the evil that is unleashed jeopardizes her mother and sister Darleen, and puts Bernie in the deadliest situation of her law enforcement career.

My Review:

Underneath the mysteries that propel the action in (and around) The Sacred Bridge is the story of a solid relationship between two people who have both reached a crossroads in their careers. Which makes it entirely fitting that one half of the story is set at Lake Powell, a man-made lake near Rainbow Bridge that was created by damming the Colorado and San Juan Rivers in 1963.

When the author picked up her late father’s long-running mystery series with Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013, she brought back the characters of the Legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, his proteges Sergeant Jim Chee and Officer Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito. Leaphorn has retired, Chee has finally grown up, and Bernie has turned into an excellent cop ready to stretch her wings.

But Chee and Bernie are married, and happily so. Except for the times when Chee gets stuck as the officer in charge at the Shiprock office of the Navajo Police and is temporarily acting as his wife’s boss.

Bernie’s considering becoming a detective, while Chee’s been a cop more than long enough to be getting a bit worn down by the job. He’s at the point where his options are to get promoted into management – which is too much like politics for his taste, keep doing what he’s doing – even though that’s already getting old and sour, or find something new.

Or go back to something old. When we first met Chee back in People of Darkness, he was training with his uncle to become a hatááłii or medicine man, a practitioner of the Navajo sacred healing ceremonies. But Chee’s uncle died years ago, if he truly wants to pick up that training, he will need to find a practitioner willing to teach him.

So as the story opens, Chee and Bernie are miles apart. She has returned home to go back to work, and to check on her elderly mother and her sometimes wayward younger sister. And almost immediately finds herself neck deep – possibly literally – in a case that will test her decision to become a detective – and test whether or not everything that goes along with that job is what she really wants.

She’s in way over her head – and will need skill, courage AND luck to break the surface.

The Rainbow Bridge and surrounding canyon seen from the Navajo Mountain side

Meanwhile, Chee is at Rainbow Bridge, the Sacred Bridge of the title, letting the peace of the place help him see into his own heart. But, like so many cops on vacation – at least in fiction – he finds himself back on the job when he looks down into Lake Powell and discovers the body of someone who will never break the surface again.

Bernie’s case is wrapped up in 21st century problems – drugs and the money they bring, along with all of the ills that follow in their wake. In the case of the K’e Hemp Farm, those ills include human trafficking, forced labor, paying workers in illegally-grown marijuana instead of cash – and the murders necessary to cover it all up.

The case that Chee has fallen into – or that the dead man he found has fallen out of – is rooted in older and deeper motives. In the resentments that still swirl around the lake and all the sacred places that were drowned to create it, but also the motive for the oldest crime in the book – the jealousy that drove Cain to kill Abel.

So Chee is trying to unravel a knot of emotions, while Bernie is trying to protect herself from being tied up in a net of drugs, money and murder. Neither case is easy, and both have the potential to provide their personal dilemmas with an all too permanent solution.

Escape Rating B: I love this series. I loved the original, and I love the way that the author has picked up her father’s torch and brought these characters into the present. So this entry in the series, as always, was a visit with some old and dear friends.

But I was hoping that this book would break the grade “B” reading week I’ve been having, and it just didn’t. It could be me, it could be that everything I’m picking up is turning into “B for Blah” whether it really is or not. But this entry in the series fell just a bit flat for me.

Some of that may be due to Leaphorn being absent entirely. Even though he’s more-or-less retired, his perspectives and insights always add some depth to the story. So I missed his presence.

Also, this revival of the series has been centered on Chee and Bernie and they usually spend at least some of each story in the same place working on the same or parallel cases. While it makes sense that they need some time on their own to think about their respective careers, they are miles apart and all-too-frequently completely out of contact with each other.

And on my third hand, Bernie’s part of the story didn’t quite gel for me. She goes undercover into the middle of a very dangerous drug operation, but she’s not remotely trained for it, she doesn’t have any reliable backup, and she’s in over her head to the point where she nearly drowns in it. It all veered very close to “heroine in jeopardy” in ways that felt cliched – but possibly entirely too real. One of the villains definitely bordered on “bwahaha” territory.

But if the point, at least from the perspective of her police superiors along with all the alphabet agencies tagging along on this case, was to throw her into the deep end to see if she sank or swam, well, mission accomplished. Howsomever, something about the combination of how extremely important the case was vs. just how underprepared she was didn’t quite match up.

Chee’s case made more sense – and/or it felt more like the cases that make up the backbone of the entire series. It was a mix of the traditional, the historic, and the contemporary with a thoughtful exploration of the characters involved. Although I did figure out whodunnit long before the reveal, I still enjoyed that part of the journey quite a bit.

In short, I liked parts of this one, but not as much overall as I usually do. But it’s always good to see how these characters are doing, and I’m curious about whether Leaphorn is going to come back from his unexpected trip to Hawaii married to his longtime companion. And I really want to find out what decisions Bernie and Chee make about their careers, their life together, and whether or not they plan to plunge ahead and have children – which will also have impacts on those careers and that life.

So sign me up for the next book in this series whenever it comes along – hopefully around this time next year.

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