Inside the Beltway with Chee and Leaphorn
New York Times Sunday Book Review, June 18, 1989


by Tony Hillerman.
239 pp. New York: Harper & Row. $17.95.

THE STORY STARTS WITH a starchy female lawyer for the Smithsonian Institution receiving a pair of human skeletons in the mail. A note explains that they are the bones of her aristocratic New England grandparents. The sender suggests the Smithsonian should put them on display, in turn releasing ''the bones of two of my ancestors so that they may be returned to their rightful place in Mother Earth.''

As everyone knows these days, aggrieved Indian tribes are seeking Federal help in retrieving their aboriginal skeletal remains from museums all over the country, while embattled anthropologists lament the potential loss of priceless information about ancient tribes and cultures. To an irreverent ear, the resulting debate sometimes suggests those two bad old movie western standbys: ''White man speak with forked tongue'' and ''The only good Injun is a dead Injun.''

It would not be unreasonable, therefore, if a neophyte reader of Tony Hillerman's fiction concluded that the author intended to plunge headlong into this painful question. Not so. By trade and perhaps temperament, Mr. Hillerman is a narrative circler. Besides, as fans familiar with his engaging mix of lethal doings and tribal lore know, the Navajo have a ''fierce religious aversion to corpses and everything associated with death.'' And isn't it a bit odd that the giver of the grisly gift is a Smithsonian curator who claims to be one-quarter Navajo?

Indeed it is. Before you can say Yeibichai, the Navajo name for the Talking God of the title, the scene shifts from the nation's capital to Mr. Hillerman's literary preserve, some 25,000 square miles of Navajo turf in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Once again, Lieut. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police is on the job, beginning to wonder just how a man with pointed shoes wound up dead beside some railroad tracks. His younger colleague, Officer Jim Chee, meanwhile, is staked out on a totally different problem. He is watching a Night Chant curing ceremony, with orders to arrest some kook named Henry Highhawk who wants to become a full Navajo, but (Aha!) has been charged with ''desecration of graves'' back East.

In mystery writing there is no shortage of heterogeneous violent acts yoked by ingenuity together. Mr. Hillerman's method is brilliant, though. Leaphorn and Chee more or less leapfrog each other, trying to sort out what appear to be separate puzzles - until the two puzzles turn out to be one. ''We are like two dogs who followed two sets of tracks to the same brush pile,'' Leaphorn says, near the end of ''Talking God.'' Because they don't communicate with each other much, the reader, privy to both searches, is often ahead of them in putting it all together. Curiously, this sometimes creates more, rather than less, suspense. One kind is pure mystery - simply wondering what will happen next. The other, more subtle, is the suspense of waiting to learn exactly how and when what you roughly know has to happen actually does happen.

With the success of Mr. Hillerman's earlier novels, including ''A Thief of Time,'' a best seller, Chee and Leaphorn have achieved some national fame, lately reconfirmed by the appearance of a Caedmon tape recording read by the author. As regular players in Mr. Hillerman's long running show-and-tell course in Navajo language and culture, the two help illuminate the range of small truces a college-trained Navajo must make between tradition and the modern world. Leaphorn, with an advanced degree in anthropology, is more skeptical about religion than Chee, who is practicing up to conduct Talking God's nine-day curing ceremony as a freelance shaman.

Chee mourns the love of a white teacher who won't marry him; she cannot bear the thought of raising their children on the reservation, while he cannot face living outside it. When the two officers' separate paths lead them to Washington and the subject of returning bones, Chee rides the Metro, feeling sadly detached from a ''species that had evolved to survive overcrowding, to endure aggression, to survive despite what old Professor Ebaar called 'intraspecies hostility.' ''

Mr. Hillerman, too, seems a bit more at home on the reservation than in the murder capital of the nation. Yet except for the standard tourist misspelling of Silver Spring, Md., as Silver Springs, and turning E Street into E Avenue, his background use of Washington is breathtaking. Real and false masks of Indian deities, an attempted political assassination - at a gala in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History - and a short course in how to murder a man and keep it secret for a month, are all included in ''Talking God.'' So is the creation of a curiously winsome Dickensian character, an urban hit man who knifes his victims with surgical skill but spends his off-duty hours trying desperately to find a nursing home willing to keep his savagely obstreperous mother.