The Shape Shifter (Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee Novels)
by Tony Hillerman
Review by Ernest Lilley
HarperCollins Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0060563451
Date: 21 November, 2006 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Maybe you thought Joe Leaphorn, Navajo policeman veteran of Tony Hillerman's well loved series, had retired. Actually, so did Joe, but he finds it a pretty boring way to spend his time, and doesn't balk much at all when an old friend sends him a picture of a Navajo rug that Joe had thought was destroyed in a trading post fire when he was a young member of the tribal police force. With nothing but time on his hands, he heads up to Flagstaff to check in on his friend and maybe learn more about he mystery, only to find himself involved in a murder investigation that stretches back into his past.
It still bothers Joe Leaphorn that when he was a new recruit on the Navajo Tribal Police force, he dropped the investigation of the theft of a couple of buckets of pinyon sap to hotfoot it down to the scene of a trading post fire where FBI agents claimed to have found a most wanted suspect burned to death. The old woman who'd had the baskets stolen never forgave him either, and if he'd only stayed on that case he might have learned more about the fire sooner...rather than now, years later while he's trying to adjust to retirement. But that's not the way things work, and if we learn anything from Tony Hillerman's stories of the Navajo Tribal Police, it's that wishing things were different and trying to rush things along are two paths to disappointment.
A valuable rug was presumed to have burned up in that fire, and not just a valuable one, but one with a curse on it. The skillfully woven rug showed a depiction of the "Long Walk", which tells the story of how the tribe left the refugee camp they had been placed in to return to their home between the mountains, a depiction that goes against the customs of rug weavers and is supposed to carry danger to anyone who owns it. In the subtle way of tapestries woven by the author, it more than lives up to its legend. Since it was assumed destroyed, when Joe opens a letter from an old friend that shows a rug very much like it in a home decoration magazine his curiosity is piqued, and he heads out to Flagstaff to find out more. Before he arrives though his friend goes missing, and it soon turns out that the last place he'd been was at the owner's home.
Joe slowly puts together all the pieces of the puzzle to uncover the real identity of the man who died in that fire, as well as that of the rug in the picture. The answers bring him closer not just to his culture, but in helping others explore their own roots, and ultimately to right an old wrong. Though Joe's old partner Jim Chee does appear in the story, it's Leaphorn's mystery alone, which turns out to be just as well, because there are things that a retired policeman might be able to turn a blind eye to that a member of the force would have to act upon.
The author says that the story grew out of a "grab-bag full of accumulated ideas", starting with using the rug as a way to tell the story of the Long Walk. As a mystery, it's only moderately engaging, and the suspense that builds up is much more about what will happen to the different actors than who was responsible for the rug's disappearance and the trail of killings that seem to follow it. Rather, it's a tale told by Leaphorn though many cups of coffee and filled with trademark atmosphere. The real mystery we're left with is whether the author has worn out this character, and if so, will he bring someone new on to act as Chee's foil?