One of Hillerman's best
Thief of Time, Tony Hillerman?s eighth mystery novel featuring the Navajo Tribal police, is one of his most compelling and compassionate mysteries, along with Coyote Waits, and The Wailing Wind. Hillerman catches the reader?s attention within the first few pages. The book opens with Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, an anthropologist studying Anasazi pottery, arriving at her campsite in a remote canyon in Utah. She hears a flute-like sound, which she assumes is just the wind playing upon her imagination. Then she notices that someone has sadistically tied frogs to sticks fixed in the ground just out of reach of water. Some of the frogs are still alive, so the person responsible for this sick display is likely close by. When the wind starts playing Hey Jude, both the reader and Dr. Friedman-Bernal realize that she is in trouble.
The story shifts to two weeks later, when colleagues become concerned and report Dr. Friedman-Bernal missing. Lt. Joe Leaphorn is on bereavement leave after the death of his wife, but agrees to do some preliminary investigation as a favor. Officer Jim Chee is on the trail of a backhoe thief. Leaphorn and Chee keep running into each other as they follow their respective leads. Soon they realize that the theft of the backhoe and the disappearance of Friedman-Bernal are related.
Leaphorn?s and Chee?s investigations lead them to question everyone from field anthropologists to evangelists to local ranchers. Everyone and his brother seem to be involved in selling unlawfully obtained Anasazi pottery on the black market, including Dr. Friedman-Bernal. Those involved in the looting of Native American graves are the thieves of time of the title.
The mystery is intricately woven and the ending comes as quite a surprise. Although the mystery and the archeological aspects of the book were quite interesting, what really made this book worthwhile for me was the human story. Chapter 11 is devoted to the final thoughts and actions of Harrison Houk, one of Hillerman?s most complex characters. Leaphorn knows Houk from an investigation years earlier when Houk?s wife and children were brutally murdered by Houk?s schizophrenic son. Facing imminent death, Houk calmly goes over memories of his lost family and feels only love and gratitude to God for giving him a good family and a good life. The depth of Houk?s love and understanding of his mentally ill prodigal was beyond moving.
I highly recommend this book. Thief of Time was adapted for PBS?s Mystery Theater, by Robert Redford and is available on dvd. I recommend the movie version as well, although the movie lacks the character development of the book.