Spider Woman’s Daughter

A few months ago there was some discussion here of literary franchises that have outlived their creators, vis à vis the JDM estate’s policy against resurrecting Travis McGee. I provided a link to a Financial Times article on the subject.I just finished a novel that revives an illustrious mystery lineage several years after its creator’s death, and thought I’d report on it.

I don’t know how many of you McGee types are also fans of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee mysteries, set in the Navajo Nation. But I sure was. I’ve read every one of them; some of them more than once. Hillerman was an old newspaperman and not a Navajo. But he pretty much singlehandedly established the sub-genre of Native American mystery. He credited his inspiration as a series of Australian novels by Arthur Upfield, whose sleuth was half-aboriginal/half-European. Hillerman died in 2008.

The Leaphorn and Chee stories–starring one or the other, or sometimes both, tribal police officers–are not only page-turning whodunits, but wonderfully written. IMO, they capture the cultural, social, ethical, and religious qualities of the Navajo people beautifully. They vividly depict the geography, geology, and meteorology of the Four Corners region. I can think of few other mystery series where the environment and landscape are always such key characters. Hillerman’s stories unfold with an austerity of style that clarifies plot and character to a wonderful degree. If, by chance, you haven’t read them, I recommend that you do.

The good news here is that the Hillerman estate–presumably his widow and daughter–didn’t like the idea of permanently silencing Lt. Leaphorn, Officer Chee, and Officer Manuelito. So, Anne Hillerman has taken up the challenge of reviving her father’s franchise with Spider Woman’s Daughter.

The novel revolves around the attempted murder of Joe Leaphorn, now retired but consulting with a local museum of Anasazi art. The primary POV is that of Bernie, now married to Chee. She is the daughter of Spider Woman, a character out of Navajo mythology. To figure out who shot Leaphorn and why–an assault to which she was the only witness–Bernie needs to dig into the legendary lieutenant’s history and the arcane but passionate field of the study of ancient Anasazi pottery. In the end, she and Chee barely escape with their lives.

It’s perhaps unreasonable to think that any new writer can perfectly capture the voice of a beloved author who is gone. But I think in this case, Anne Hillerman comes close. She does justice to her father’s characters and fictional world, promising a bright future for this significant mystery series. I know that I’ll certainly want to read more.

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5 thoughts on “Spider Woman’s Daughter

    • Sorry you think Hillerman is lame. I couldn’t disagree more. Anyway, we were talking at the end of December about the FT article on literary estates that revive fictional heroes and this is entirely relevant to that discussion. I’m not comparing Hillerman to JDM. Apples and oranges.

  1. I’ve enjoyed all the Hillerman’s I’ve read. I’ll give this a try, no problem. I heard about it but coming from D. R. gives it an extra boost IMO.

  2. I’ve read them all and I agree that Hillerman vividly depicts the Four Corners region and that the environment and landscape are key characters. I’ve visited this region several times and Hillerman gets it perfectly: Remote, lonesome, and vast.

    Do you think because these stories are written in the third person that this makes it easier to “recreate” the voice/style than it would be for first person?

    • I think you’re right that third person would make it easier for a new author to continue an old series. But she/he still has to be in the hero’s POV a lot, and that takes some understanding and real skill. There’s no doubt that recreating McGee’s first person narration would be tough to do well.

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