Book Review:
People of Darkness (Tony Hillerman)

Reviewed by Stephen Bespalko

Lithosphere (April 1996); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

Suppose you wanted to kill somebody with a mineral specimen. Short of simply hitting them over the head with the thing, exactly how would you go about bumping them off while minimizing your chances of getting caught? In People of Darkness, Tony Hillerman has devised an insidious technique.

As with last month's review (Straight by Dick Francis), this is another story that isn't new but surely should be interesting to FGMS members. Although both books are exciting works of fiction, the two stories could not be more different. In this case mineral specimens are used as the murder weapon.

The "People of Darkness" are a radical Indian cult who venerate the Mole, prince of the underworld. In Navajo mythology, the underworld is the place from where humans emerged at the end of the previous realm. "Underworld" is an interesting play on words since it is also the realm of crime and avarice in the white man's world.

I have always been a fan of Tony Hillerman. His characters are fully developed and his stories are very thematic -- quite unlike last month's story which was completely plot-driven. By the end of this story the reader is happy that the villain gets what's coming. The other fascinating aspect of Hillerman's stories are his repeating main characters. They are unique in the mystery world.

In this book, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Captain Jim Chee are detectives with the Navajo Indian Tribal Police. Leaphorn is a very traditional Navajo. Jim Chee is caught between the worlds of the white man, where he was educated, and the ancient Dinee (pronounced "dee-nay"), as the Navajo refer to themselves. We find Chee agonizing over the impact his admission to the FBI academy will have on his plans to become a Navajo singer (medicine man). Chee's uncle (a highly-regarded singer) is making it an "either/or" choice.

Hillerman's favorite literary device is exploiting cultural differences to build tension and help the reader develop an appreciation for how different, yet similar, our two cultures are. People of Darkness begins with Chee being summoned to the house of a wealthy citizen who wants "an Indian" to investigate a robbery local authorities won't take seriously. The owner suspects the cult leader who is admittedly eager to recover the religious artifact that is claimed to have been stolen. Solving the crime ultimately hinges on Chee's understanding of the fear Navajos have of witchcraft. This is definitely an intriguing look into the Navajo psyche.

Hillerman has, without a doubt, concocted the slowest-acting poison of all time for this story, it is surely going to boggle your mind. This dastardly method ends up knocking off unsuspecting victims for the better part of half a century before Chee figures out what is going on. In other words, there is more going on here than you initially suspect. Creepy though it is, this is a good one. If you have any doubts about the plausibility of the premise behind this book, you simply have to go to the library and browse an article in Scientific American (January 1996). Sadly, there are now documented cases of Russian gangsters using a method similar to that described by Hillerman to ice their targets.

People of Darkness by Tony Hillerman; ISBN 0-06-080950-7.

Copyright © 1996 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the April 1996 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002