A Thief of Time
by Tony Hillerman
Review by Don Metzler
Harper Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061808401
Date: 01 June 2009 List Price $9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
A noted anthropologist vanishes from Chaco Canyon. Nearly two weeks have passed since Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal drove off for a one day excursion to Farmington, and no one has seen her since.
About this same time, a backhoe goes missing from the Navajo Tribal Motor Pool in the middle of the night.
Might these two incidents be connected? Unlikely.
As a favor to an old friend, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police, on the brink of retirement, begins looking into the disappearance of Dr. Friedman-Bernal. The clues that Leaphorn discovers in Friedman-Bernal’s residence at Chaco lead him to believe that the anthropologist had definitely intended to return. Most of her clothes were left behind, and even more tellingly, there remained a tray of marinating meat in the refrigerator, prepared ahead of time for a fancy meal she had intended to share with a visiting colleague. But it was a dinner date she had failed to keep.
Leaphorn puzzles over the question: how could Friedman-Bernal have so thoroughly disappeared from the face of the earth in the space of a few days?
Meanwhile, Officer Jim Chee is assigned to the case of the missing backhoe, driven off under the cover of darkness. The single clue comes from the owner of a gas station across the road, who actually witnessed the theft but assumed that the backhoe had been taken by a repair crew for an emergency water line break, or something of that nature, that could not wait until morning. The only information he can provide is that an older model Plymouth sedan had been involved. So Chee goes looking for the Plymouth.
The trail leads him to the revival tent of Christian evangelist Slick Nakai. Besides his primary occupation as an evangelist, Nakai has been known to deal in antiquities from the many unexcavated Anasazi sites that are scattered throughout the myriad canyons of the reservation. “Only the strictly legal artifacts,” Nakai is quick to assure Chee.
But it turns out that one of Nakai’s customers is none other than Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal. So the missing backhoe and beat-up old Plymouth have led Chee to the same mystery that Joe Leaphorn is faced with: the disappearance of Friedman-Bernal. Chee and Leaphorn realize they will have to pool their resources and collaborate if they hope to find the missing anthropologist. Will they be in time to save her life? Or is it already too late?
Originally published in 1988, A Thief of Time is one of Hillerman’s best. The great fun of this novel, as in many of the Leaphorn/Chee stories, is to watch how the two policemen, working from different starting points and with opposite methods, eventually manage to arrive at the same destination. The burgeoning but frequently uneasy relationship between the seasoned veteran cop Joe Leaphorn and the young, impetuous Jim Chee lies at the core of the story. Chee takes few pains to disguise how he feels about his superior. As Hillerman tells us at one point, “He didn’t particularly like Leaphorn, but he respected him.” And of course Leaphorn’s opinion of the younger man is predictably from the other end of the spectrum. The lieutenant views Chee as a good policeman with solid instincts and a great deal of potential, if he can ever learn to control his wildly impulsive nature.
The further contrast between Chee and Leaphorn springs from each man’s view of their shared Native American background, and from human nature itself. Jim Chee is very much immersed in the traditional ways of the Navajo. In his spare time he is studying to become a hatathali, the Navajo equivalent of a medicine man. Leaphorn on the other hand, a graduate of Arizona State University, is grounded in the pragmatic. Many of the Navajo origin stories that Chee so cherishes, Leaphorn considers folk legend. Yet through working together to unravel the riddle of Dr. Friedman-Bernal’s disappearance, the two men come to grudgingly respect each other’s beliefs.
A Thief of Time takes place just after the passing of Leaphorn’s wife of many years, and the story contains a deep poignancy, fueled by Joe’s gentle reminiscences of his beloved Emma. Throughout the narrative, Leaphorn is given to occasional moments of pause, during which he is apt to ask himself, What would Emma say about this? The hallmark line in the book comes when Joe is reflecting on the little trips and excursions that he and Emma had always intended to take together, but had not quite gotten around to: “There was never time, until now, when time no longer mattered.”
It has been a number of years since my first reading of A Thief of Time, and I think that perhaps I appreciated Hillerman’s sensitive telling of the story even more this time around. An enjoyable prospect now presents itself: to go back and re-read all of the other Hillerman novels that are lined up on my bookshelf. One can only wish in vain that Tony was still with us, and that we might look forward to new stories of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.