Saturday, August 14, 2021

Spider Woman's Daughter - Anne Hillerman


Some five years after the 2008 death of her father, author Tony Hillerman, Anne Hillerman continued her father’s Leaphorn and Chee series with Spider Woman’s Daughter. The novel was well received and even won the prestigious 2014 Spur Award for Best First Novel from the Western Writers of America in addition to earning its spot on the New York Times Best Seller list. What I find most striking about the novel, however, is the decision that Hillerman made practically to kill off Joe Leaphorn in the very first chapter of the very first book she added to the long-running series. After being shot in the head, Joe Leaphorn spends more than half of Spider Woman’s Daughter in a coma, and even by the end of the novel he can still barely communicate with others for more than a few seconds at a time. Leaphorn, although he is a secondary character in the story, is still very much a presence but he seems well on his way to becoming a Navajo legend — someone more often than not spoken of in the past tense. (And, from what I understand, Leaphorn continues to be very much a secondary character in the novels that follow Spider Woman’s Daughter.)

For whatever reason Hillerman decided to take this approach to her father’s beloved Joe Leaphorn character, this is very much a novel belonging to two other Navajo cops: Sergeant Joe Chee and his wife Bernadette (Bernie) Manuelito. Primarily tasked with solving the attempted assassination of Leaphorn, even though Bernie is “officially” off the case because she witnesses the attempt on Leaphorn’s life, the couple makes an interesting team as they follow leads all over New Mexico. 


Joe Leaphorn is not a man without enemies. Over the course of his long career as a Navajo Nation Police Officer, Leaphorn has intimately touched the lives of numerous families living on Navajo land — not always in a positive manner — and the list of potential shooters who might want to avenge some perceived family slight by killing Leaphorn is not a short one. Even though Cree and Manuelito themselves grew up on the reservation and understand the sacredness of family ties and confidences there, they find it difficult to get anyone to talk to them about the attempt on Leaphorn’s life. But, they keep pulling on threads and, soon enough, it is not only people on the reservation who are getting nervous. 


Anne Hillerman has written a good story here, one that mystery fans, especially readers already familiar with the book’s main characters, are certain to enjoy. My only quibble with Spider Woman’s Daughter - and it is a pet peeve of mine — is that the author falls into that old cliché near the end of the novel of having the villain of the piece confess gleefully, and in great detail, to everything that’s only been hinted at before. This kind of confession always seems to happen when the bad guy is on the verge of killing the only cop that knows the whole truth, and that’s what happens here…paragraph after paragraph of confession even though every reader knows the villain is in for a big surprise. Call it the “James Bond Surprise,” if you will.


Bottom Line: Spider Woman’s Daughter is very good, and it has rekindled my desire to read the whole Joe Leaphorn series that her father began in 1970, Anne’s additions included. I especially enjoyed the insights into contemporary Navajo Nation life and traditions that Hillerman so seamlessly includes with the core of the story, and I look forward to reading more of her work.


Anne Hillerman

8 comments:

  1. I've got this book sitting on my shelf, and you've encouraged me to pick it up and read it.

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    1. It's the only one of hers I've read, but i have one on my desk right now, and I plan to read all of her additions to the series sooner or later. I've been told she gets better with each book.

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  2. I've never read any of Anne Hillerman's books, but I own several of her father's. Your review makes me want to pull out my favorites and reread them. Leaphorn and Chee are such great characters. :)

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    1. They really are great characters, and Bernie Manuelito is really likable, too...a character I really cared about in this one. Bernie has a lot of family issues to deal with right in the middle of all that's happening to Leaphorn and her husband. Her sister is a mess; her mother, a rock.

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  3. I haven't read any books by this author or her father - know they were quite popular.

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    1. They are really good, Diane. I've always been curious about the Navajo Tribe, and Tony Hillerman's books seem to have received their blessing. Anne continues the tradition of sharing their culture in a realistic - and entertaining - way. You learn a lot about the tribe even if you don't realize it's happening.

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  4. The Leaphorn decision makes me a bit sad as I always enjoyed his character, but I guess I can understand the writer's decision to focus on Chee and Bernie. They are enormously attractive and sympathetic characters. I'll have to give her book a read. It sounds like it might be a worthy successor to a series I loved.

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    1. I wonder, Dorothy, if Anne felt a little insecure about the Leaphorn character. Perhaps she feared getting a bunch of negative feedback from her father's longtime fans. I can understand why she made the decision if that's the reason...not so much if she simply decided it was time to retire him. Or, maybe, she did it as a tribute to her father...a way of saying that no one should try to extend the character beyond Tony's books.

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