The Shape Shifter

The Shape Shifter

Since his retirement from the Navajo Tribal Police, Joe Leaphorn has occasionally been enticed to return to work by former colleagues who seek his help when they need to solve a particularly puzzling crime.

They ask because Leaphorn, aided by officers Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito, always delivers.But this time the problem is with an old case of Joe's--his "last case," unsolved, is one that continues to haunt him.

And with Chee and Bernie just back from their honeymoon, Leaphorn is pretty much on his own.The original case involved a price, one-of-a-kind Navajo rug supposedly destroyed in a fire.

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This is the last Navajo Mystery penned by Tony Hillerman. "It was intended to be just downright practical." Louisa turns him down, saying that he's too good of a friend to ruin with something like marriage, and Leaphorn let that hang there. Tl;dr - A solid and fun mystery powered only by Joe Leaphorn, with mere cameos by Jim Chee and his (view spoiler)blushing bride (hide spoiler)

I loved the book, though I did not end up majoring in anthropology, and over the next 25+ years, I read every one of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries. It wasn't so much the mysteries that enthralled me, but the way he wrote such believable and interesting Navajo characters. This wasn't an idle precaution - apparently tons of tourists really visit the Four Corners area to see "Hillerman country," and the Navajo Tribal Police Station in Window Rock gets phone calls from people actually wanting to talk to Lieutenant Leaphorn or Sergeant Chee. In the fourth book in the series, People of Darkness, Hillerman introduced Officer Jim Chee, a younger member of the Tribal Police who would become Leaphorn's colleague and partner and eventual friend, though not without some tension. Chee was a traditional Navajo, also college educated, but unlike Leaphorn, he truly believed in the Navajo Way, and spent much of the series studying to become a shaman and trying to reconcile that with also being a policeman. One of the most poignant points in the entire series was when Leaphorn, after a particularly grueling case, asked Chee to perform a Blessing Way ceremony for him, which was kind of like a lapsed Catholic asking a priest for confession. The thirteenth book in the series, The First Eagle, introduces Officer Bernadette Manuelito of the Tribal Police, a Navajo cutie who is destined to be girlfriend #3 for Jim Chee, and really the point at which I thought the series began its decline. At first the regular reader enjoys this, wanting to catch up on how Jim Chee and his girlfriend are doing, or how Emma's health is nowadays, but sadly, too many authors begin to use these recurring tropes as shortcuts to reader investment, and Hillerman eventually fell prey to it himself. I recall reading some time in the late 90s, I think, that Hillerman was done writing Leaphorn/Chee mysteries. The Shape Shifter, to be fair, is better than the preceding two books, The Sinister Pig and Skeleton Man, which had me sadly shaking my head at just how much Hillerman the author was phoning it in. But The Shape Shifter tries very hard to force a bit of Navajo mythology into the story, mostly by allusion; the plot is about an ex-CIA man, a Hmong refugee, and a very old cold case that draws the "legendary lieutenant" (in the last half dozen or so books, this phrase will be repeated constantly in reference to "retired" Lieutenant Leaphorn) out of retirement just like he has been in the last few books. But Tony Hillerman, who was a decorated World War II vet, winner of many literary awards and a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, and Special Friend of the Dineh, wrote books I've been a fan of over half my life. So, although my head says The Shape Shifter should only get 3 stars, in my heart I am giving it a collective rating for all the hours I spent reading about Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, Janet Pete, Cowboy Dashee, Bernadette Manuelito, and many, many others, and traveled with them across the Four Corners.

Though unlike Chee he is no true believer in the myths of his people, he finds a lot of truth in their belief that evil arises from a loss of harmony with the natural world. An icon for such evil in this tale is an antique tapestry that portrays the history of The Long Walk, the forced march in 1863-64 of thousands of Navajo away from their sacred mountains to an internment camp 450 miles away, at the cost of hundreds of deaths. Along the way, Leaphorn draws his new Hmong friend out on the history of his people, finding interesting comparisons with the travails of the Navajo.

On the other hand, readers will figure out what befell the clever but merciless fugitive Ray Shewnack before Leaphorn does.

This was Tony Hillerman's last novel. It is my opinion that he either started this, but felt too ill to do it right, or he started this and was unable to complete it and it was finished by a ghost writer. Whether or not Tony wrote this novel all by himself or it was completed by a ghost writer, we may never know.

I'll be reading her first one in the near future.

The broad variety of plot elements (Indian weaving history, Navajo and Hmong religious beliefs, Vietnam war activities, etc) was certainly interesting, although the disparate elements were, for the most part, never really integrated in a convincing and coherent way. It was a lot of fun to hear about the Four Corners locations as we drove through that same environment.

Indeed, I have some suspicions that this novel stems from an earlier Leaphorn-has-just-retired manuscript that got shelved. I love the last three paragraphs of the novel, but I strongly dislike the cliché ending that has Leaphorn behaving totally out of character. I read a goodly number of books in manuscript as part of my job, and this is clearly a first draft that somebody (most likely not Hillerman) cleaned up a bit so they could publish it. It has numerous plotting and narrating errors, where he forgets to tell us someone is in a scene, or forgets to mention a clue but brings it up later, or the text contradicts itself. But here's the thing: Leaphorn retired four or five books earlier than this. A good Hillerman scene has about three things going on in it. Honestly, this book needs to be retired from the Leaphorn/Chee canon, and allowed to go out of print.

Hillerman knows how to set up a story and create suspense. Though this is the first Hillerman book I've read, it seems that Leaphorn is a recurring main character in his books. I also love how I always seem to find books without meaning to where the characters talk about or have degrees in Anthropology.

So, maybe I would've liked this book better if I had read all 17 that came before it. So, after having only read the first one in this series, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is now retired and sort of operating outside of the law when he gets involved with a cold case from his youth. Then Leaphorn's partner in this case, Bork, turns up dead which then leads him to millionaire Jason Delos and his servant, Tommy Vang.

Hillerman, a consistently bestselling author, was ranked as New Mexico's 25th wealthiest man in 1996.