Picks and Pans Review: Talking God

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Tony Hillerman

Some detectives, like some wines, do not travel well. Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is fine in Victorian London but would be a bust in 19th-century Brooklyn. Similarly, Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, brightest stars of the Navajo Tribal Police, are sharp and insightful when they're working amid the familiar vistas of the vast reservation in New Mexico. Put them in Washington, D.C., though, and they seem a little rubish. That's what the estimable Hillerman has done in his latest saga of murder on and off the reservation, and despite the book's many virtues, you sort of wish he hadn't.

Chee and Leaphorn, who had gone their separate literary ways until they met in last year's A Thief of Time, go to Washington on different missions. Leaphorn, the older, more cynical cop, is there trying to identify a corpse found on the reservation and missing, among other things, its dentures. Chee is helping a lawyer friend deal with a slightly off-center mask maker whom he once arrested.

The two cross paths, of course, with some spooky action taking place at night in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. There are Latin American rebels, a low-life killer who seems to be a refugee from Elmore Leonard Land and a guest shot by some of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's bad guys. In other words, Hillerman is having plot trouble.

As compensation there are Hillerman's gift for establishing character and, in the beginning chapters, his descriptions of Navajo country and the feeling of real cops working among their own people. Hillerman fans will not be too discouraged, although they may hope that next time out he remembers: You make a reservation, you should keep it. (Harper & Row, $17.95)

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