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He swiveled his chair and looked at the reservation map that dominated the wall behind him. Three pins marked the unsolved homicides: one near Window Rock, one up on the Arizona-Utah border, one north and west in the empty country not far from Big Mountain. They formed a triangle of roughly equal sides – some 120 miles apart. It occurred to Leaphorn that if the man with the shotgun had killed Chee, the triangle on his map would become an oddly shaped rectangle. He would have four unsolved homicides. He rejected the thought. The Chee business wouldn’t be unsolved. It would be simple. A matter of identifying the malice, uncovering the officer’s malfeasance, finding the prisoner he had abused. It would not, like the three pins, represent crime without motive. …
Leaphorn’s map was known throughput the tribal police – a symbol of his eccentricity. It was mounted on corkboard on the wall behind his desk – a common “Indian Country” map published by the Auto Club of Southern California and popular for its large scale and its accurate details. What drew attention to Leaphorn’s map was the way he used it.
It was decorated in a hundred places with colored pins, each color representing its own sort of crime.
Crime in a Gorgeous Scenery
Navajo Nation covers about 67000 square kilometers in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. It’s the home of Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Antilope Canyon and the Mesas – in short: this gorgeous scenery, widely known as Marlboro Country and a popular background for westerns, is the playground of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.
It’s a vast and empty countryside: less than 3 people share a square kilometer. The Navajos like the loneliness creating a home for their hogans resp. caravans far away from each other. Of course this doesn’t mean that there is no communication, no palaver, no gossip or whatever among the remote sites.
… and of course there is crime.
Leaphorn and Chee are part of the Navajo Tribal Police representing law and order in Navajo Nation. Their jurisdiction may be limited – often they have to co-operate with the different units of State Police or the FBI … – however, their territory seems unlimited. They have to drive quite a lot in their 4WD during a day resp. a week.
Crime … which type of crime?
There are so-called minor crimes like stolen cattle or horses, offense and revenge affairs dragging on for decades. There are cases of burglary and fraud, fatal accidents caused by drunken drivers … And there are murders. Especially when a corpse is found somewhere or even when corpses pile up the skills of Leaphorn and Chee are in great demand.
It takes time to unravel the background for any murder. Often not only the inhabitants of Navajo Nation are involved, but also … people from outside who are busy in the Indian reservation – if archaeologists, if hunters of artifacts, if spies, if drug runners, if entrepreneurs … Also Navajo people get sometimes up to a bit of no good – if driven by ambition or greed, if driven by political reasons like causing trouble for the political establishment.
There are novels with Leaphorn, there are novels with Chee – and there are novels when both co-operate. While Leaphorn on the one hand is more experienced and works more methodically, Chee is often driven by the moment and his personal nosiness. Both have a gorgeous gut instinct concerning any open angles and hints of a case. They don’t ignore their Navajo background which determines very often the co-operation of any Navajo people as well as hidden motives and private motives.
The Navajo background mythically interwoven with the landscape establishes the environment where everything happens. Tales about the Navajo gods – or whatever you may call these characters – and their battles and marriages … all this is evident in the novels because the Navajo people live with their myths and their history. Especially there is the fact of witches, witchery, sorcery … which populate the minds of any Navajo, if living in fear of them, if asked to investigate strange events with collateral damage.
Chee attended college/university, but he is also keen to become a hataalii, a ceremonial singer and healer. He is on the got to join the FBI Academy, but he resigns. The nature of Navajo Nation, the Navajo spirit and the extraordinary lifestyle don’t let him go. Even his relationship with a teacher, no Indian of any tribe, dies away when their different cultures clash – a soft clash. Later Chee meets his destiny – another woman.
Leaphorn loses his wife to a brain tumor, is devastated about the loss, even tries to leave his job, but slowly he is back to his old self. Finally he meets a woman … and a new relationship forms. Finally Leaphorn retires, but stays active a sa PI with best relations to the police – any police unit in and around Navajo Nation.
When reading one of Leaphorn and Chee novels you make not only a deep dive into private lives of both cops, but you’ll learn quite a lot about the Navajos, their myths and daily troubles. Each crime has some relation to all the rest in Navajo Nation. The novels are quite unique while the crime is as violent as everywhere else.