One of my recent books finds from the Dollar Store is a Four Corners mystery, Earthway by Amée and David Thurlo. What attracted me to the book was Tony Hillerman’s endorsement on the jacket. Hillerman, now deceased, was best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mysteries which featured detective rivals Joe Leaphorn, retired, and Jim Chee, an up-and-comer. Having read the entire Hillerman series, I gravitated to this new find, which Booklist also recommended as, “An outstanding series.
I’ve since read the novel and admit, I was entertained. But like so many writer’s of mysteries, Hillerman being an exception, the plot’s twists and turns take precedent over character development. For me, a plot isn’t a story. A plot gives me a sequence of events. A story includes a plot but engages me with characters I care about.
Many successful mystery writers get away with thin characters. Agatha Christie is one. Yes, Poirot has his “little grey cells” and mincing manners and Miss Marple makes an art of being underestimated, but neither character has much of an inner life. They are little more than paper dolls being moved through a plot the way leaves are pulled by a current. P.D. James’ Inspector Dalgliesh is among the most flat and humorless detectives ever created.
Hillerman, to the contrary, gives us rounded characters. Leaphorn agonizes over his wife’s cancer. Chee looks for love. The central figure in Earthway, Ella Clah, is a creditable detective. She sniffs through the pages of the novel like a bloodhound and is scrupulous about clues; yet, we see little of her as an Indian woman. She has been placed in Arizona’s Navajo country but doesn’t appear to be shaped by it. Except for the name, Ella Clah, she could have been Irish or Norwegian.
I can recommend the book as a pleasant read. The setting and the plot are interesting and I might buy another in the series for $1. But Hillerman’s tribute to the book is deceptive. Earthway doesn’t fill the gap left by the deceased writer. To be honest, I closed the book feeling his loss more deeply.
(Courtesy of faculty.washington.edu)