Picks and Pans Review: A Thief of Time

updated 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tony Hillerman

Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police and officer Jim Chee work among canyons and sandstone, bluffs and white water, but their terrain is a landscape of death. This, the ninth Hillerman novel featuring Leaphorn and Chee, begins when a brilliant anthropologist on the brink of an important discovery disappears. Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bemal is a ceramics expert studying clay pots of the Anasazi, the ancient ones of Navajo Indian culture. One morning she leaves her apartment in Chaco, N.Mex., and is not heard from again. To her worried friends she is a missing person; to Leaphorn she is a possible criminal, under suspicion for excavating valuable artifacts from federally protected land—for being "a thief of time." Meanwhile two men hunting pots illegally are murdered, and an important former Utah legislator is shot to death in his barn. For Leaphorn and Chee, only the remarkable story buried in the history of the pots can lead them to the vanished scientist. Told with a sensitive and involving grasp of Navajo tradition and lore, this is a mystery with majesty. Its language verges on the lyric: "Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand." Hillerman knows the value of suspense: He packs his scenes with tantalizing details, his detectives with intelligent persistence, and his story with an understated sense of urgency. (Harper & Row, $15.95)

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