The protagonists have kept this series strong for years. Hillerman develops them further with each book. As an elder, Joe Leaphorn is still growing and learning. Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee navigate the challenges of their police work and their marriage. And the new characters are memorable and deep. The multiple suspects in the crime were all plausible, and I was never sure who was responsible until near the end. The settings are intriguing. The Alamo Navajo Reservation near Socorro, New Mexico is a lesser known section of the Navajo Nation, yet still part of the nation and its culture. Also near Socorro is the Very Large Array, the site of high tech studies of the stars. The victim, a scientist who worked there—the star gazer of the title—is revealed in depth as a person.
Anne Hillerman has knack for creating colorful, utterly real, and very regional people as minor characters, also. Bernie’s attempt to serve a warrant on Melvin Shorty presents one of these gems. And how Shorty behaves in the end is true to the way he and Bernie met as human beings, not just as officer and law breaker.
Hillerman gives realistic complexity to the characters’ lives. Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito are never dealing with just one case. There’s a primary mystery plot, but there are other demands on their professional time as well, including a painfully sad case Bernie stumbles across while attempting to deal with stray cattle. The leads’ private lives are not neglected by the author or the characters. I like having fully functional sleuths. They attend to their relationships and friendships, not just their work.
The author’s prior writing career in nonfiction serves her well. She integrates research fluidly as needed, resulting in a poetic balance between the science at the Very Large Array and Bernie’s Navajo view of the stars and constellations.
The ending is satisfying. Major issues are wrapped up, yet the reader is left thinking about the characters’ future plans.
No spoilers, but Joe Leaphorn’s encounter with a child who is traveling alone is wonderful. And if you read the author’s notes at the end, that scene gets even better. Hillerman’s notes are as good as the story, as she shares more about the Very Large Array, Navajo cosmology, and her writing process.
This true story would make a great movie, featuring a hidden treasure and a huge cast of characters trying to get hold of it despite the claim of the stubborn widow of the original finder, Doc Noss.
Doc, a Cheyenne foot doctor of no known medical credentials, had an office in what was then Hot Springs, now Truth or Consequences. He was reputed to be skilled in treating foot ailments, whether or not he was real doctor. Once he found treasure while out deer hunting, his life changed, and not for the better. He had a lot to worry about—more gold and ancient Spanish artifacts than he could remove from the cavern in Victorio Peak. (The mountain is named after Victorio, the Apache war chief. I’m not sure how or why Koury or perhaps his publisher renamed it Victoria.)
The book chronicles Doc Noss’s adventures, his sudden and dramatic death, court case after court case, subsequent treasure searches, and Ova Noss’s years of fighting to retain her right to the treasure and get permission to dig it up. Once the peak was made part of the White Sands Missile Range, Mrs. Noss had to go up against everyone from the U.S. military and F. Lee Bailey to the woman who claimed to be her late husband’s other widow.
Attorney for Mrs. Noss Phil H. Koury has a penchant for detail. As you might expect, he tells his story with an emphasis on the legal battles, but it’s never dull or confusing, and he has a humorous flair. He recounts the treasure hunt scenes he witnessed with apt observations of character and settings. The process of solving this mystery during a time when communication was slower increases the suspense. I rooted for Mrs. Noss all the way. Since this is a true story, the plot doesn’t necessarily turn the way a work of fiction would, but that makes it no less compelling.
A friend who organizes the T or C Story Lab invited me to be a story teller later this fall. I was honored, but I couldn’t think of an episode in my life that would make a good story. I find listening to others, observing nature, and studying the world more compelling than my personal history. I feel like this cat, perched on an arch overlooking an alley, self-contained and interested. Paying attention, not seeking it.
Another cat in the neighborhood climbs onto parked cars on the street, mewing at the top of her lungs, begging to be petted. I comply with her demands, but I am not that cat. The concept of the Story Lab isn’t to be that cat, either. It’s to share yourself and connect with the community. I love the idea. I’ve appreciated it as a member of the audience. But I still have no story. Yet. Perhaps I’ll jump down and discover one.