Dance Hall Of The Dead (CRIME MASTERWORKS) Paperback – 18 Jul 2002
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'There has never been anything ordinary about Hillerman's crisply plotted, magically evocative tales...Mingling taut, deceptively simple prose with shrewd psychological insight and a scholar's understanding of Navajo culture and religion' Entertainment Weekly
About the Author
Tony Hillerman was born in Oklahoma in 1925. He joined the US Army in 1943 and won the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart after being wounded. After the war he attended the University of Oklahoma and worked as a journalist, eventually becoming editor of the New Mexican. In 1963 he went to graduate school at the University of New Mexico and joined the journalism faculty there in 1966. His first Navajo mystery, The Blessing Way, was published in 1970.
Top customer reviews
Did Bowlegs commit the crime? Can he be tracked down by Leaphorn? Why are the FBI bringing in drugs specialists? The crime element is thus part manhunt, part police procedural and part whodunnit.
The real stars of the book are the beautiful descriptions of the Arizona landscape and the author's intimacy with Native American culture. At first this is a little overwhelming and the short opening chapter required a couple of re-reads given the flurry of Native terms. There are some nice cultural counterpoints, especially the comparison of the secrecy of Zuni ceremonial details and the sanctity of the Catholic confession; both of which hinder the successful solution of the crime.
The crime element was , in truth, relatively mundane. There are only a couple of viable suspects and it really feels like this is the backdrop to the book rather than its driving force. The interest is in what it tells you about this way of life and for that you should be educated and entertained.
Since these are Ernesto Cata, a Zuñi who has been chosen to represent Shulawitsi, The Little Fire God, in a big celebration, and his Navajo friend, George Bowlegs, it immediately raises problems of jurisdiction and Leaphorn is asked to find the latter. Soon a body is found and the search centres on the remaining boy. Hillerman’s strength lies in his storytelling and in his ability to describe the peoples, their customs, religions and differing value systems, and landscapes of the region. This is achieved through the backgrounds of his detectives who, crucially, have both studied anthropology before joining the police. This allows them to present these elements in a very engaging and undidactic manner as they mull over the evidence, much of which is found through tracking and applying traditional knowledge, and ruminate on its significance.
In 1973 so many of today’s technological marvels were unknown and it is fascinating to see how difficult it was to pursue investigations speedily in the absence of, for example, DNA analyses to determine the origin of a pool of blood, and mobile telephones to communicate across the vast region over where the investigation unfolds. The author’s greatest skill in this and his other books is in presenting detailed information about the technicalities of Native American cultures and religions, and their differences.
Here the consequences the latter have their origin in the friendship between a Zuñi and a Navajo, and the tribal boundaries that cannot be crossed. Some Zuñis believe that a kachina (spirit) has taken revenge because one of the boys had communicated forbidden sacred Zuñi knowledge to his Navajo friend. Interestingly, the latter is seeking out information about other cultures and religions because of his failure to find spiritual depth within the Navajo tradition. Hillerman does not shirk from addressing alcoholism, poverty and bullying but does not overly focus on these either.
This cultural and religious diversity and conflict plays a major part in the investigation and is reflected in the teamwork between the investigation team, comprising Tribal Police of differing cultures and ‘white’ Americans from the Federal authorities. Into this mix the author adds a team of archeologists on the verge of rewriting accepted history, an FBI agent and, less successfully, a group of rather formulaic hippies. Through some of these he presents naïve opinions on Native Americans and their culture. Another perspective is presented through the dispassionate eyes of the non-religious but sympathetic Navajo, Leaphorn. In marked contrast, the author presents a Catholic priest who has lived in the region for decades and knows and admires the Native Americans.
It is all too easy to forget that the author is not a Native American as he paints a picture of the realities of everyday life and its problems for the tribal communities whose lives reflect the stark nature of the landscape. The plot, steeped in the supernatural, is not completely satisfactory but the author was still developing his characteristic style.
The detail on tracking, hunting, ceremonial events and the link between the real and spirit worlds is always integrated into the story. Leaphorn is very understated, contrasting with the immensity of the natural world. We learn surprisingly little about the policeman’s background, family and home life.
One positive aspect of Hillerman's novels, however, is the way in which he incorporates facts about Native Americans in the Southwest. Part of the time reading Dance Hall of the Dead, I thought I was reading a history text. Although I didn't think that Dance Hall of the Dead was an extraordinary book, I was nevertheless intrigued by the information provided on the Navajo and Zuni tribes.
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