- Dance Hall of the Dead (1973)
- Listening Woman (1978)
- People of Darkness (1980)
- The Dark Wind (1982)
I read the first book in this series, The Blessing Way, in June, but for various reasons wasn’t able to get to the next few books until the end of July/early August. When I read the first book, I really enjoyed the setting and thought the concept was interesting, but the mystery itself was a little weak, and I also struggled with the fact that we aren’t really given any personal information about the protagonist, Joe Leaphorn. However, I decided to give the next books a chance, and I’m glad I did, as they have steadily improved. Hillerman does a great job giving us plenty of context and background information to create a unique and engaging setting. In Listening Woman, there is a whole subplot involving the AIM (American Indian Movement), which was very current for the time the book was published. I was a little concerned as the books pushed into the 80s because so many crime writers seemed to think during that decade that you couldn’t be a real crime writer without lots of weird sex (I’m looking at you, Ed McBain), but these books have actually stayed pretty clean, greatly adding to my enjoyment of them.
I got a little confused because in People of Darkness, the protagonist abruptly changed from Joe Leaphorn to Jim Chee. We’re given a little paragraph of reference to Leaphorn now being Lt. Leaphorn and working in an office in the norther part of the reservation, but both People of Darkness and The Dark Wind completely focus on Chee. I really like Chee a lot, so it wasn’t like this was a bad thing, but it felt really weird and abrupt to suddenly have the stories focus on a completely different guy with a very different method of solving mysteries.
About halfway through Dance Hall of the Dead I finally found a map of the Navajo reservation and printed it off. Reading these books without a map was just incredibly frustrating because the characters are constantly driving around to different places – everything is very spread apart out west – and Hillerman uses names without a lot of explanation (for instance, getting the map made me realize that Mexican Water is actually a town, not a lake or river, and Window Rock is both a town AND a mountain). Finding the map increased my enjoyment of these books a LOT. I’m just a super visual person, and being told things like “they drove from Albuquerque to Shiprock that evening” without any concept of how far apart those two places are was driving me batty.
Hillerman does a great job introducing aspects of the Navajo culture with respect. I love how Chee really embraces his family’s traditions and is interested in becoming a Singer, learning many of the healing ways. I’ve just finished the next five books in the series, and both Chee and Leaphorn (who returns as a protagonist later haha) have become a lot more personable, so that’s been lovely.
All in all, this has been a really worthwhile series that is getting steadily better as it goes. These were all 3.5* & 4* reads for me, and the second batch were all 4*, so I’m quite excited to continue on!