Tony Hillerman is a prolific writer of westerns; I was given The Wailing Wind by a friend to test drive this famous author. The book is one of many in a series of modern westerns featuring a Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee and his retired boss Joe Leaphorn, as well as a young female Native American officer, Bernadette Manuelito. A body is found in an abandoned pickup on the Navajo “checkerboard” reservation by Officer Manuelito, who initially fumbles an important crime scene evidence item, something her boss, Sergeant Chee, asks Leaphorn to rectify before the FBI finds out. Chee does this to protect her career—the young detective is attractive, as well, which doesn’t hurt. The evidence, a tin with sand and tracer gold, is “restored” to the crime scene. An ex-con’s phone number is found in the dead man’s pocket as well, leading the officers to resurrect an old crime: a rich businessman shooting a conman who’d shook him down over rights for a legendary gold mining claim, the Golden Calf. The same day as the conman’s death, the businessman’s wife disappears. That evening, teenagers hear ghostly moaning while partying at the United States’ largest abandoned ammunition dump, the Fort Wingate Army Ordinance Depot, a huge facility with hundreds of abandoned munitions bunkers.
I’m new to Hillerman’s work and no doubt he has a large, well-deserved fanbase. His writing was solid, his characters believable and his plot understandable. “Adult situations” are few and far between and there is no profanity—both good attributes—appropriate for young adults. There was plenty of description of “Four Corners” vistas, flora and fauna, and I did get a sense of what life was like in the mining, cattle and law enforcement worlds of the early 2000’s Navajo nation.
However, I found the plot dragged and although Hillerman did a good job explaining how characters related to those in past novels, I still felt like I’d come in during the second half of the game. There’s a lot of sitting in diners, drinking coffee. There’s driving, there’s talking on the phone; a housekeeper says the owner is home; later she says he isn’t—not all this description was riveting nor necessary to advance the plot. The author’s characters are fascinated with maps, which is okay, but this is somewhat overdone. A lot of Native American culture is used as background but some of it felt a little too forced and over-explained, a little to “Navajo 101.”
I was only marginally interested in how the book ended, which is disappointing as generally I am fascinated with lost treasure type stories. I would likely have enjoyed this book more had I started earlier in the series; this book was #15 out of 22. ★★★ Three out of five stars.