People of Darkness
by Tony Hillerman
Review by Don Metzler
Harper Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061808395
Date: 01 June 2009 List Price $9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In the parking lot of the Cancer Research and Treatment Center at the University of New Mexico, a decrepit green pickup truck is rigged with a bomb and blown to smithereens. A murder attempt on a man who had just checked himself into the center... a man who was dying anyway. It is a baffling crime for which the Albuquerque police can find no explanation.
Three months later, Navajo Tribal Policeman Jim Chee is summoned to the palatial home of millionaire B.J. Vines. A small strongbox has been burglarized from Vines’ home, and Mrs. Vines wants Chee to investigate. She is willing to pay $3000 for the return of the box, even though she describes the contents as being nothing more than a handful of her husband’s mementos of the past. Mrs. Vines even tells Chee who she believes took the box: the Navajo leader of a peyote church, an underground religious society called the People of Darkness. His name is Emerson Charley.
What was in this box that Emerson Charley would want? Chee asks, but that is a question that Mrs. Vines cannot, or will not, answer.
Skeptical, Chee nevertheless makes a few casual inquiries, and the first thing he learns is that Emerson Charley could not possibly have stolen the box. It was Charley’s pickup truck that was blown up in Albuquerque several months earlier. Although Charley was not hurt in the explosion, he is a very sick man, dying of cancer, and has not been outside of the hospital since.
Then another member of the People of Darkness is found out on the malpais, with a bullet hole in the back of his head. Suddenly this business of the missing box is looking more serious than Chee had at first assumed. Especially so when Chee realizes that he may be the next target of the assassin.
Chee scours the Navajo reservation, looking for the founding members of the cult. But he has little luck. The People of Darkness came into being in the late 1940s, and it seems that each of the founders had succumbed to one mysterious ailment or another years ago. Could those supposedly isolated deaths of thirty years earlier be somehow connected to the current wave of unexplainable crimes?
And more importantly, will Chee be able to find the answers he seeks, before the assassin finds him?
One of Tony Hillerman’s many strengths as a writer was his knack for keeping the reader involved from the first page to the last. His novels hit the ground running and never look back. The fast pacing and high level of suspense make for books that the reader will be unwilling to put down. And People of Darkness is no exception.
But of course what Tony was best known for was his depiction of Navajo traditions and culture. He was a pioneer of this sub-genre that mixes suspense with anthropology. His work opened doors for so many other fine authors whose books might never have seen the light of day if not for Hillerman: Margaret Coel, James Doss, and Peter Bowen, to name a few.
But in re-reading People of Darkness (originally published in 1980) I am reminded that Tony Hillerman remains the undisputed master of this genre. As a tribal policeman, Jim Chee treads a frequently indistinct line between the modern, white world and the traditions of his forebears – treads it sometimes uneasily, and at other times with a wry sense of humor. And the great triumph of Hillerman’s art lies in the way he was able to weave this Native American theme into the story, along with all the accompanying cultural background, without ever compromising the mystery.
If, like myself, the last time you read People of Darkness was back in the 1980s, then it might be time for you to revisit this novel. If, on the other hand, you are unfamiliar with Tony Hillerman’s work or with this particular novel, then you’ve got an entire, delightful new world waiting for you between the covers of this book.