Monday, August 2, 2010

In The Spotlight....

Hello, All,

Welcome to a new feature that I’ve decided to try here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist – In t
he Spotlight. I got an interesting suggestion from Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere that it might be good to choose one novel and take a close look at it – deconstruct it if you will. I thought it was a very intriguing idea. Here’s how it’ll work. I’ll ask you folks for suggestions for books that you would like to see deconstructed, and each time I do the feature, it’ll focus on a different one of your ideas. This won’t be a book review; rather, I’ll be looking at some of the book’s characters, plot threads and other elements. I’ll suggest a book today, so that you can have a sense of what In the Spotlight is like. Then, I’ll make a list of your ideas of other books you’d like to see in the spotlight and the feature will focus on those. I very much look forward to your ideas and your feedback on this feature.

Today, I’m putting Tony Hillerman’s The Dark Wind in the spotlight. In that novel, Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to investigate vandalism to a local windmill. While he’s on duty one morning before dawn, Chee witnesses a plane crash. He doesn’t recognize any of the victims, but soon enough, the FBI gets involved in the case when it turns out that the plane was used in drug smuggling, and there’s a large supply of drugs missing. In fact, at first, Chee himself is suspected of being a part of the smuggling ring. At the same time, Chee’s investigating the theft of some pawned jewelry from the Burnt Water Trading Post. The jewelry hasn’t turned up, and Joseph Musket, the trading post employee who’s suspected of stealing the jewelry, has disappeared. To further complicate matters, there are whispers of witchcraft in the area, and Chee’s trying to get to the bottom of those rumors.

As Chee slowly finds out the truth about the missing drugs and jewelry, the plane crash victims, the windmill damage and the drug smuggling, he’s able to tie the threads of the different cases together. As it turns out, they are all related, and in the end, Chee finds out who’s behind the different crimes he’s investigating.

There are several elements that Hillerman uses to weave this story together. One of them is the steady level of tension. Of course, there’s the tension we feel as Chee investigates the case. But there are other kinds of tension, too. There are, of course, lots of ways to create and maintain tension in a story; here, Hillerman uses inter-departmental conflict. The U.S. government sends Agent Johnson to the Reservation to investigate the drug smuggling ring. While he’s interviewing Chee and Chee’s boss, Captain Largo, Johnson makes it clear that he suspects Chee of being involved in the drugs ring. The reader can sense quickly that there is no love lost between the Navajo Tribal Police, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the FBI, but Johnson and Chee are thrown together in the investigation.

Another source of tension in this story is the conflict over the windmill. This stems from the fact that members of the Hopi Nation will be moving onto some land that’s been designated for joint use between that Nation and the Navajo Nation. This will mean that the Navajos living there will have to move. So naturally, there’s resentment between members of the two groups. It’s not only the use of the land, either. Water is a rare and very precious commodity on the Reservation, and the damage to the windmill is a reflection of the ongoing conflict over water use.

Another element that we see in The Dark Wind (and many other Hillerman novels) is a strong sense of place. Hillerman places his stories in the American Southwest, primarily on the Navajo Reservation. The majestic beauty and emptiness of the area adds a layer of setting to the novel that makes the story richer. Here’s how Hillerman describes the area where the plane crashes, for instance:

“Chee stared up the wash, up the plane’s landing path, frowning. As he remembered, it had struck an upthrust of basalt which jutted from the floor of the wash. The wash had flowed around the extrusion on both sides, eroding the earth and leaving a black stone island in a sea of sand.”

There are lots other examples in the novel of the stark beauty of this part of the country, and Hillerman uses them to really place the reader in the Southwest. As you can see from the ‘photo, the American Southwest has its own majesty and beauty, and Hillerman conveys that.

Another important element of this novel is the sense of Navajo and Hopi culture. At the beginning of the novel, for instance, three young Hopi boys make a gruesome discovery. As they discuss what it might mean and what they should do about it, we get a real sense of their culture and belief system. Later, as Chee begins to ask questions about the trading post theft and about Joseph Musket, we get a sense of the Navajo culture, too. For instance, when he interviews Musket’s mother, we get a sense of the Navajo sense of family and the Navajo tradition of interactions with others.

Chee himself is a member of the Navajo Nation and a yata’ali, a Navajo healer. Late in novel, we see an example of Chee’s sense of identity as a yata’ali as he prepares for a showdown with one of the antagonists in the story. He goes through the Stalking Way ceremonial, which is traditionally used for hunting. In this case, Chee uses it to prepare himself for the coming confrontation with the antagonist.

Besides the tension, the setting, and the sense of culture, Hillerman uses some fascinating characterization to keep the story moving along. First and foremost, there’s Chee himself. He’s a multidimensional character who brings his identity as a police officer, a Navajo and a healer to the task of detection. As he interacts with whites, other Navajos and Hopis, we see his ability to move between worlds, so to speak.

Chee, of course, isn’t the only interesting character in the novel. One of Hillerman’s recurring characters who plays a role in this story is Deputy Sheriff Albert “Cowboy” Dashee, a member of the Hopi Nation. Dashee is not just a fellow police officer, but also a friend of Chee’s. He, too, bridges the gap between the white culture and his own Hopi world, and through his eyes, we get an interesting perspective on the events in the story.

And then there’s Jake West, who owns the Burnt Water Trading Post. West’s a white man whose store is as much a social meeting place as it is a store. West hears a lot of the local gossip and Chee seeks him out as he tries to make sense of the various events.

What’s particularly interesting about these characters (and other, minor characters I haven’t mentioned) is that they fit in the setting and the story. They belong there, and are quite authentic.

Hillerman’s use of tension, setting and characterization are just a few of the elements that hold The Dark Wind together. Have you read The Dark Wind? If you have, what elements doyou see in it?

If there’s a novel you’d like me to put in the spotlight, or if you have feedback on this new In the Spotlight feature, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment or send me an Email. I’ll make a list of your suggestions and choose from that list as I put other books in the spotlight.


  1. I love this new feature, In the Spotlight. I learned so much just today.


  2. I like this feature Margot. I haven't read any of Hillerman's books yet though I have 'mooched' one that you mentioned in one of your earlier posts - now I just need to rescue it from the TBR pile.

  3. Great idea! I'll look forward to reading more of these.

  4. What a wonderful feature and a great book to start with. I enjoy Tony Hillerman's books but to have it broken down like this gives it more depth. Can't wait to see what books you feature. Can't think of a book right now (of course) but I will be thinking. Intriguing post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. What a wonderful feature, Margot. Thank you.
    This is not a book I have read (or even an author I am familiar with), but after reading about the book, I want to read it, so I can savour all the stuff you have brought out.
    There are dozens of Agatha Christie books where I know I am missing a lot more than I am getting- 'The Mirror Cracked.." is one of them, as is "One, Two Buckle my Shoe"- in both stories, I get pulled along by the obvious conflict, and would love to see more through your eyes.

  6. Oh, what a great blog idea! Can't wait to read more. I haven't read any by Hillerman in the past but you sure do a great job of taking it apart. What stories would I love taken apart? Have you ever read anything by Val McDermid? She's a bit gruesome at times so maybe not. What about Minette Waters(Walters?)? Or even The Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George?


  7. Teresa - Thank you : ). I'm glad that you found this feature a good one : ).

    Bernadette - Oh, I do hope you'll enjoy the Hillerman. I read very few writers with as good a sense of place. OK, Colin Cotterill, Martin Edwards and a few others, but still...

    Karen - Thanks : ). I'm glad you're enthusiastic about the idea!

    Mason - Thanks : ). I'm so glad you find the feature interesting. Isn't Tony Hillerman's work terrific?! I'm not sure yet what the next featured book will be, but if you think of one you'd like to see featured, do let me know.

    Rayna - Thank you for the inspiration. It really is a great idea. And thanks for the book ideas. You know how I feel about Agatha Christie : ), so I'll certainly be featuring more her books.

    Clarissa - Thank you : ). You have some wonderful ideas for novels, too. Val McDermid is terrific; admittedly some of her stuff is graphic, but still... So is Minette Walters and the first Elizabeth George is terrific, too. Wonderful ideas, and I truly appreciate them.

  8. Shining the spotlight on some novels is a wonderful idea, Margot! Just what I need: to learn to analyze the books I read! I'll be thinking of a book or two...

  9. Christine - I'm so glad you like the idea : ). And I look forward to getting your ideas for books.

  10. Interesting idea. Anyone who hasn't read Hillerman is in for a treat. How about 'A Morning for Flamingos,' an early James Lee Burke?

  11. John - Thank you : ). And I agree about Hillerman. I also appreciate your idea for spotlighting A Morning for Flamingos. Burke is certainly a truly fine American crime fiction writer; this one goes on the list I am making.

  12. Always loved Hillerman. How about Roseanna by Sjowal and Wahloo?

  13. Patti - Thanks for the terrific idea! OK, that goes on the list, too!

  14. This is a wonderful new feature, Margot, and I look forward to the next installment. I've never read any Hillerman, but I'll definitely check out my library to see if its got one or two of his books.

  15. Elspeth - Thanks : ). I'm so glad you like this idea. I think you'll like Hillerman, too.