Had it not been for some unfortunate connotations that I had with Hillerman (he was the author of choice for a particularly Wicked Stepmother), I would have most likely read his whole oeuvre by now. When he died earlier this year, I decided to make like a good Southwesterner and rectify this omission in my reading list. The problem was I didn't really know where to start. (I was told by an enthusiastic library volunteer in Oro Valley, AZ that I should just start at the beginning and work my way through, but that seemed a little more time consuming than I was ultimately prepared for.) In the end, a discount book rack in Portland, Maine made my decision for me. I started with Listening Woman because I was able to buy it for a dollar.
This ended up being a good introduction, I think, even if it was pretty arbitrary. A little further research and I now know that this is one of the few Hillerman mysteries featuring just Joe Leaphorn; his counterpart (and subordinate) Sgt. Jim Chee is introduced relatively early on in the series. It's also not one of the more high profile (read: multi-awarded, movie-versioned) novels. This combined leads me to believe that I had a rather organic introduction to the Leaphorn series.
Listening Woman had a number of things to recommend it--good characterization, evocative descriptions of the harsh and beautiful landscape of the Navajo Reservation where the book takes place, and snappy pacing. On the flip-side, the plot was, from the get-go, unnecessarily complicated--involving three separate cold-cases that come together to form one master crime scenario, the ending (though exciting) drug out far too long, and descriptions of action (dynamite exploding and killing people, notably) was rendered in such a way to make it unclear to the reader where people were and what exactly was going on.
In the end, though, two things about this novel stuck out to me. Firstly, there's the empathetic descriptions of Navajo culture and traditions (especially when contrasted/dramatized against the background of 'White' culture). About mid-way through the novel, Leaphorn visits a Navajo clan during a Kinaalda--a sacred coming of age ceremony for a Navajo woman. The description of the ceremony itself is rather moving, but it was Leaphorn's reaction to it that really struck me:
"Leaphorn found himself, as he had since childhood, caught up in the hypnotic repetition of pattern which blended meaning, rhythm, and sound in something more than the total of all of them...A girl becoming a woman, and her people celebrating this addition to the Dinee with joy and reverence. Leaphorn found himself singing, too. The anger he had brought--despite all the taboos--to this ceremonial had been overcome. Leaphorn felt restored in harmony.
He had a loud, clear voice and he used it...The big man glanced at hime, a friendly look. Across the hogan, Leaphorn noticed, two of the women were smiling at him. He was a stranger, a policeman who arrested one of them, a man from another clan, perhaps even a witch, but he was accepted with the natural hospitality of the Dinee. He felt a fierce pride in his people, and in this celebration of womanhood."
It's a short passage, but so much is conveyed in it--not only about Navajo customs that many would be unfamiliar with, but about Leaphorn as well.
The other thing that stuck with me about this book is that contrary to my usual preferences, the amazing amount of coincidence and eventual connectivity of various, seemingly unrelated plot elements didn't bother me at all. In part, this is due to Leaphorn's own ethos: "Leaphorn didn't believe in [coincidence:]. He believed that nothing happened without cause. Everything intermeshed, from the mood of a man, to the flight of a corn beetle, to the music of the wind. It was the Navajo philosophy, his concept of interwoven harmony, and it was bred into Joe Leaphorn's bones." This alone might not have satisfied me, however--it's all well and good for Leaphorn to believe in "interwoven harmony," but in fiction, such connectivity generally strikes me as heavy-handed and simplistic. But Hillerman makes a practical point early on that though obvious, perhaps, wouldn't have occurred to me otherwise: "If two white strangers appeared at about the same time in this out-of-the-way corner, one headed for the Tso hogan and the other aimed in that direction, logic insisted that more than coincidence was involved."
Definitely a promising start for me. I think I'll try Skinwalkers next, but if anyone has other recommendations, let me know.