Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Alphabet in Crime Fiction - The Ghostway by Tony Hillerman

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.


  1. Excellent post Margot. Tony Hillerman has been right near the top of my 'authors I haven't read yet but really, really need to' list for a while now (along with Joseph Wambaugh and Sarah Paretsky).

  2. Thanks, Craig - I have to admit to being a very big fan of Hillerman's. Part of the reason is that I find his sleuths Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn really fascinating characters. Sara Peretsky's V.I. Warshawski is, too. I have to confess that, like you, I haven't read Wambaugh, but he's on my "must read" list, too.

  3. Tony Hillerman is the only crime fiction author my wife reads because of all the details about the Navajo culture. She hates flying but was easily persuaded to brave the 11 hour flight to Phoenix so that we could go to see some Navajo sites.

  4. Sounds an interesting book Margot. Thanks for this contribution

  5. I remember looking for one of Hillerman's books here years ago and not finding it so that's my excuse for never having read this author. However it should be much easier for me to access them now and it sounds as if I really should make the effort.

  6. I haven't read this one! Sounds interesting...and informative, too. Thanks, Margot!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  7. Norman - Actually, the Navajo culture was what attracted me to Hillerman, too, originally. Once I started reading his books, I was hooked. I'm so glad you got the chance to visit the region he writes about, too; it's some of the most desolate, yet absolutely stunning, country in the U.S. I had the privilege of driving through it when my family and I moved to California, and when I gave a paper once in Arizona. Unforgettable

    Kerrie - Thanks : ); it really is an interesting book on several levels. Hillerman had a real skill at infusing culture with a solid plot and strong characters. He was also named a Friend of the Navajo People by that group. Considering he wasn't a mamber of the Navajo Nation, it's amazing how well he understood that culture.

    Bernadette - I really do recommend Hillerman. Besides the interesting characters he creates, he does an outstanding job of describing the American Southwest. One really feels that one's there when one's reading a Hillerman. The plots are usually strong and believable, but even when they're a bit thin, the main characters are interesting, and the suspense stays strong.

    Elizabeth - That's one of the things I like best about Hillerman! I've learned a great deal about the Navajo culture and about the Four Corners region of the American Southwest from reading his novels. In others in this series, he also teaches some things about the Hopi and Zuni cultures. It's an education as well as a set of absorbing mysteries : ).

  8. What a great review, Margot- how thoughtful and interesting as to the various aspects of this book. I haven't yet read Hillerman either, but he's been recommended to me quite a bit. I think I have a copy of The Blessing Way somewhere. Some aspects of the novel remind me of Michael Walters's Mongolia books - one in particular involves the traditional peasants' ways of preparing the dead. Also there are a few echoes of Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland, which was a lot about the traditional Aboriginal culture in Australia. Thanks for such a fascinating post.

  9. Maxine - Thank you : )! Very kind of you : ). In case you haven't tumbled to it, Hillerman is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed re-reading this one. Hillerman wrote about two sleuths, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. The Blessing Way is his first Leaphorn novel, and it's more "action/adventure" than The Ghostway is, and to be honest, I prefer Chee to Leaphorn. But both are compelling sleuths and Hillerman wrote great plots; I think you'd enjoy it.

    I haven't read Walters, but you've made a really apt comparison between Hillerman's work and Hyland's work. If you liked The Diamond Dove, I think you'll like this one.

  10. I don't know this book, but it does sound interesting. I'm woefully ignorant about these cultures and learning new things is always fun. Thanks for highlighting this book, Margot.


  11. Elspeth - I agree completely - it really is enjoyable to learn about new cultures. That was one thing that drew me to Hillerman's work in the first place. That's also one of the many things I really like about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

  12. I've read quite a few Hillermans and liked them all. Thanks for remembering him with the Gs.

  13. Patti - Ah - a fellow Hillerman reader : ). Isn't he terrific? I'm glad you enjoyed the review.

  14. The Arizona/Utah area of the USA is magnificent. I spent several days there back in 2006 (incl Zion, Bryce Canyon, Kodachrome, Monument Valley and Grand Canyon parks). Would go back anytime.

  15. Craig - Isn't it absolutely lovely there!? I've a friend who lives in Salt Lake City, and she can go to those places whenever she wants - lucky!