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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Shape Shifter (Leaphorn and Chee #18) by Tony Hillerman

 Despite some flaws, still a strong story (and a possible explanation for the flaws- as a literary device...)

Published by Harper in November of 2006. 

There are numerous flaws in Hillerman's newest book, including a confusing, often rambling first 100 pages or so. However, at about the halfway point in the book it catches some traction and moves forward with purpose and speed and the last half of the book reminds me of the Hillerman of old.

For those readers who are disappointed with this one, might I suggest that some of the flaws are built in on purpose. Not to see if you are paying attention to the over-arching plot line, but because the story is not being told with strict and exact attention to detail. Remember, the story is being told from Leaphorn to Chee and Bernadette. Leaphorn makes several references to the old days in which the Navajo stories would be passed down from one generation to the next. Leaphorn missed out on those days because he was bussed to mandatory English school and kept there for months at a time.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)
I propose that the story is being told as one of those stories being told from one generation to the next: Leaphorn to Chee and Bernie. It starts and ends in Chee's kitchen with Leaphorn telling them the story. In the end, we know that Leaphorn does not tell them the complete story since they do not know all of the details of the death of the "Shape Shifter". It would be interesting to look at the details of the Navajo creation myths that Leaphorn references so many times (especially those of the brothers who defeat the evil mountain monster that represents greed) and the details of Leaphorn and his ragtag group as they ascend the mountain to take on Mr. Delos, an evil man of multiple personas. Leaphorn's story is not exact to the timeline since it is not really of the timeline - he has taken it out of the timeline and made it one of the stories that the elders teach to their children (Chee is the closest thing Leaphorn has to a son in the stories). Leaphorn's lesson might be that despite the fact that Leaphorn is the Legendary Lt, sometimes the strictest attention to the law is not necessary and does not lead one to Justice.

For those that tire of the references to "Legendary Lt. Leaphorn" and "Lt. Leaphorn, retired" - those are most certainly plot devices. He uses Legendary to poke fun in a self-deprecating way at Leaphorn when he is not doing well at detecting (as in, look at the legend - he's not doing so hot right now, is he?) and Retired when he is confronting new physical limitations. This would go quite well with my thesis of the previous paragraph. It would also explain why Bernie is so insistent on being called Mrs. Chee every time we see her - she is not the real her, she is the Bernie of Leaphorn's story - a caricature of herself, as is everyone else.

So, if my thesis is correct, Hillerman still really has it and has moved on to a higher level of story telling. Or, he's lost it in a lot of ways and I'm just grasping at straws and seeing connections that are not really there.

Either way, I give this one a grade of 4 stars out of 5 - the last half of the book is so strong that it saves the rambling beginning.

Reviewed on December 3, 2006.

This book can be found on Amazon here: The Shape Shifter

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