The marvelous Hunting Badger is Tony Hillerman's 14th novel featuring Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Here the two cops (who appeared in separate books early on but whose paths now cross routinely) are working two angles of the same case to catch the right-wing militiamen who pulled off a violent heist at an Indian casino. Hillerman serves up plenty of action and enough plot twists to keep readers off balance, leading up to a satisfyingly tense climax in which Leaphorn and Chee stalk a killer in his hideout. But through it all, the cardinal Hillerman virtues are in evidence: economical, pellucid prose; a panoply of Indian-country characters who seem to rise right up off the page; vivid evocations of the Southwest's bleak beauty; and rich insights into Navajo life and culture. (Hillerman once told an interviewer that the highest compliment he'd ever received was many Navajo readers' assumption that he himself is Navajo--he's not.)
While first-time readers will find plenty to enjoy in Hunting Badger, it holds special pleasures for longtime fans. There's more and deeper contact between Leaphorn and Chee, and we continue to see further into the prickly Leaphorn's human side (though without fuss or sentimentality). Chee finally begins to get over Janet Pete (it took about six books) and inch toward a new love interest. And in a moving section involving Chee's spiritual teacher Frank Sam Nakai, the shaman provides a key insight into the case.
In a world teeming with "sense of place" mysteries--set in Seattle, Alaska, the Arizona desert, or Chicago--it can be a shock to return to Hillerman, who started it all, and realize just how superior he is to the rest of the pack. --Nicholas H. Allison