As the alphabet in crime fiction community meme wends its way through the letters, we’ve arrived at “G.” Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise continues to lead us skillfully on our journey. For this "stop,” I’ve decided to profile Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, first published in 1984. I first read The Ghostway as a part of the 1993 trilogy you see pictured, so that’s the edition I’m using for this post.
The Ghostway begins with a shootout in the parking lot of a Laundromat. An elderly Navajo, Hosteen Joseph Joe, is an eyewitness when Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo, shoots a stranger in a plaid coat. Seriously wounded himself in the shooting, Gorman drives away. Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is asked to find Gorman, since he’s wanted by the FBI. Chee hasn’t been told much more, but he and FBI agent Sharkey go in search of Gorman. They trace the fugitive to the hogan of Ashie Begay, a relative of Gorman’s. When they get to Begay’s hogan, they find an empty hogan and no sign of anyone there. Some distance away, they find Gorman’s body, apparently prepared for burial in the traditional Navajo way. Ashie Begay is missing. Chee notices, though, that Gorman’s body hasn’t been prepared correctly, so he’s fairly certain that Begay (who’s a traditional, observant Navajo) didn’t prepare Gorman’s body, or fled in such a hurry that he didn’t take the time to do everything properly. The whole business makes Chee curious about Gorman and his death, so he interests himself in the case, much to the dismay of his supervisor, Captain Largo, who specifically told Chee not to get involved.
What Chee finds out is that Gorman was an FBI informant on a major Los Angeles car theft ring; Lerner, the man Gorman shot, was a hoodlum sent to kill him. The FBI is taking special interest in this case, because it also involves an FBI agent who was killed in the process of investigating the crime ring. At this point, Largo puts Chee on another, related case; Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager who’s Ashie Begay’s granddaughter, has gone missing from her school. Chee’s asked to find Margaret and bring her back safely, and is ordered to leave the rest of the case alone. Chee agrees, despite his natural curiosity, but he soon finds that the two cases are inter-related. Margaret Billy Sosi has gone in search of her missing grandfather, and has traveled to Los Angeles to try to find out what happened to him. So, despite being warned off the case, Chee travels to Los Angeles, too, to find Margaret and to discover how Gorman really died.
As Chee traces Margaret Billy Sosi, he slowly begins to find out what Gorman’s role in the car theft ring was, and why he was targeted. He also learns who’s behind the thefts and Gorman’s murder, and before long, he realizes that he and Margaret have become targets, too. Now, Chee will have to work fast and try to stay alive himself if he’s going to keep Margaret safe.
The Ghostway has a solid, believable plot that keeps the reader’s interest. But the plot’s not even the most interesting part of the book. There are several truly engrossing subplots that keep the reader turning pages. Most of them are tied to the main plot, too, so they’re not distracting.
One of the subplots is the ongoing tension between the Navajo Tribal Police and the FBI. Neither law enforcement group trusts or respects the other, but circumstances throw them together on the case. That forced partnership is fascinating. So is the irony that Chee’s girlfriend, Mary Landon, has almost convinced him – almost – to apply for a position with the FBI.
Another interesting subplot in The Ghostway is the set of Navajo religious traditions that figure in the case. One of them is the ritual for preparing someone for death, and for preparing a corpse for burial. Both rituals play a role in the novel, and Hillerman describes them in interesting (and not overburdening) detail. Another religious tradition that plays a role in the case is the Ghostway (hence, the title). That’s a ritual cleansing ceremony for those who’ve come in contact with a chindi, or malevolent ghost. Navajo beliefs about death are an important part of their burial rituals and the Ghostway ceremony, and Hillerman pays respectful attention to them.
Connected with this is the conflict Chee feels about his identity as a Navajo (he’s even studying to become a yata’ali, or Navajo “singer” – a healer/shaman). On one hand, he’s committed to his identity and proud of it; he lives as a traditional Navajo and he takes pride in Navajo ways. On the other hand, Chee is practical enough to see that many Navajos live in stark poverty, and that his own career could be much advanced by leaving the Reservation and living in the larger, dominant-culture world. Matters are complicated by the fact that Chee’s girlfriend, Mary Landon, is a white woman. For much of their relationship, she envisions Chee leaving the Reservation and taking a position with the FBI or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so that they can raise their children in the “white world.”
Some of the characters in The Ghostway are what one might call “stock characters.” There are a few FBI agents, some members of the Los Angeles Police force and a mentally twisted paid assassin who aren’t particularly engrossing; certainly they’re not really memorable. That doesn’t end up being a real problem for this novel, though, since there are also some truly interesting characters. Chief among them is Margaret Billy Sosi, the Navajo teenager who runs away to find her grandfather and shows more bravery (and quick thinking!) than many of the adults in the novel. She is a very compelling character. There are also some interesting residents of a nursing home near the apartment building where Albert Gorman lived in Lost Angeles. They hold clues to the mystery surrounding him, and what’s especially interesting is that at first, no-one wants to listen to them because they’re elderly and some of them are not always lucid. Still, they add an important level of interest to the story.
The Ghostway is a suspenseful novel with some surprising twists, especially towards the end. Although we know fairly early in the novel who’s behind Gorman’s murder, the outcome of the novel isn’t a “given.” Hillerman keeps the suspense strong, especially as Chee searches for Margaret Billy Sosi, who seems unaware that some very unsavory people are looking for her. The Reservation setting for much of the novel and the Navajo culture serve as fascinating backdrops, and Chee’s a compelling character as a sleuth. I recommend this novel. However, I encourage those who haven’t read any of Hillerman’s work to start with People of Darkness, which introduces Chee. Chee’s views about the Navajo way, and his relationship with Mary Landon, make much more sense and add more to the story if one’s got that background.