Anne Hillerman’s 8th book in her mystery series featuring Navajo detectives Leaphorn, Chee, and Manuelito is a page-turner. Taking it to bed thinking you’ll drop off to sleep is a mistake. Instead, you’ll find yourself reading until the morning’s light.
Set in Utah’s Bear Ears National Monument territory, The Way of the Bear places husband and wife Navajo detectives Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito in mystical surroundings. Against a backdrop of Mesozoic Age artifacts and Indian tradition, they struggle to solve a series of modern crimes.
Murder hadn’t been on their agenda as the pair headed from New Mexico to Utah. Chee’s assignment was to meet a paleontologist who wanted to make a sizeable donation to a Navajo police charity. Manuelito wanted a holiday, a consolation for having lost a job promotion. Neither is prepared to deal with the cast of thugs, thieves, and killers that await them. Nor could they have predicted that nature would summon a storm to block roads and cut off electronic devices as it dumped several feet of snow over the normally tawny landscape.
After Bernadette’s phone goes dead during a worrisome conversation with her sister about their mother’s deepening dementia, the detective decides to leave her exploration of ancient cave paintings and return to New Mexico. As she drives to her hotel intending to pack, she notices a car by the side of the road seemingly mired in the snow. She stops to investigate and discovers the woman inside the vehicle is about to give birth. With medical help out of reach, Manuelito assists with the delivery. To her surprise, the baby’s first cry awakens maternal longings within her, emotions that confuse her thoughts about her future.
Meanwhile, a security guard has driven Chee to his appointment with the paleontologist. Despite the storm, they arrive at the scientist’s home on time. What they find is a body slumped near the entrance and a door forced open by the blows of an axe. Entering the hose, they discover it is empty and the premise intact, except for traces of yellow powder in some of the rooms. Where is the scientist? And who murdered the man outside being buried in the snow? Chee is forced to investigate.
As he plows through the evidence and interviews several suspects, he encounters more bodies, one of them his wife’s. She’s alive but she’s been hogtied and stuffed into the trunk of a suspicious car. Once released, she joins Chee’s hunt for the murderer and the missing paleontologist. The pair knows they must hurry because, with each passing minute, the snow is burying forensic evidence and there could be more victims.
Hillerman’s style is taut like a drum beat as she carries the plot forward. Even so, she takes sufficient time to paint the mind’s eye with depictions of Utah’s majestic landscape, the source of much Navajo lore. Few since Stephen Crane have made the connection between the environment and the human condition as palpable. For lovers of mystery, Hillerman’s The Way of the Bear is a must-read.