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Picks and Pans Review: The Wailing Wind

updated 05/27/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/27/2002 01:00AM

By Tony Hillerman

Page-turner of the week

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Hillerman's southwestern mysteries take noir and drive it out into the sunshine of mesas and canyons. Jim Leaphorn, the Navajo cop called the "legendary lieutenant" by colleagues, reteams with his testy ex-partner Jim Chee, who lures him out of retirement to help solve a new murder linked to lingering questions from the seemingly closed case of a convicted killer.

Complicating the mystery, Hillerman has tribal cop Bernadette Manuelitc compromise the scene of a murder because she is spooked by the Navajo belief that corpses are attended by malicious spirits. For their part the Native Americans in the book think white people are strange: They seem to be driven crazy by gold.

Manuelito, smart but human, personifies Hillerman's ability' to skillfully entwine cultural references; both she and Chee have the nuances to be protagonists of the series if Hillerman retires Leaphorn, the star of 14 books, permanently. The story plays out in a spare, deliberate manner, which provides a plausible fit for the aging, patient Leaphorn: "Well, now, Leaphorn thought, we Navajo are good at this waiting game. The Enduring Navajo, as one of the anthropologists had labeled them." Hillerman allows his twists enough space to unfurl teasingly, and there's plenty of majestic landscape to look at along the way. (HarperCollins, $25.95)

Bottom Line: Gale force hit

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