Welcome to a new feature that I’ve decided to try here at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist – In the 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
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
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.