Tony Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee


Perhaps it's the very nature of the mystery that a community is beset by an alien force, threatening, but at the same time invisible to all but the detectives - those who possess a special understanding which allows them to see things other people fail to comprehend. However, Tony Hillerman's investigators, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, stand this concept on its head. For, in fact, it is they who are the aliens serving a world that, relative to their own, exists in a different dimension of time and space.

Leaphorn and Chee are Navajo Tribal Police. They call themselves 'Dinee' or simply 'The People'. Both were born and raised on the great reservation, the vast and barren plateau carved out of the rocky lands where New Mexico meets Utah and Arizona. Both left the reservation for a time to be educated in the white man's ways, where they studied his culture, his history and his seemingly insatiable lust for money.

The elder of the two, Joe Leaphorn, has since detached himself from the Navajo way. He has incorporated the white man's logic. Yet, even though he is impatient with the mysticism of his brothers, his sense of order is clearly a product of his upbringing. A criminal act, for Leaphorn, is not so much an isolated event, it is something that throws the entire universe out of kilter. In his manner of thinking there is no such thing as coincidence.

Leaphorn may not believe in the supernatural Navajo wolves or the 'skinwalkers' who fly through the night spreading sickness but he has internalised the ancient Navajo philosophy that in any jumble of events there must be a pattern, a reason that the laws of natural harmony dictate. For the concept of harmony has been bred into his bones. He is sensitive to the land and the sky and to all earthly events. He enjoys storms as well as tranquillity, for storms are right and natural. Thus, nothing happens without cause and everything is intermeshed, from the mood of a man to the music of the wind.

Chee, the younger one, is different. As a child he had wanted to be a shaman, but his uncle had told him that as a first step he must study the ways of the white man. Only when he came to understand them could Chee then make a decision whether to remain a Navajo.

Even as a graduate of the FBI Academy, Chee carries with him a medicine pouch and each morning says a brief Navajo prayer of greeting to the dawn. He subscribes to magazines like Esquire and Newsweek, but memorizes a chant which he recorded on tape while driving to work. And he has a 'secret name', a Navajo name which few, if any, white men know.

Leaphorn and Chee realise that the world outside can never understand the Navajo. But it is the world outside that is the source of their livelihood - and their troubles. Unlike the reservation where violence is usually associated with the supernatural, they find that crime in the white man's world is often abstract and unemotional - an individual matter of improving one's odds in the game of life. To Chee, the motivations for white greed make little sense, like his favorite tale from the white man's culture, Alice in Wonderland.

So what kind of detectives are they, Leaphorn and Chee? Very good ones, I'd say. They listen more than they speak. Instead of being experts on ballistics, they are connoisseurs of sunsets. They don't clutter up their brains with details of genetic fingerprinting but memories of cloudscapes and horizons. And they recognise the flaw that big city cops have in generalising people. For on the reservation people are scarce and scattered and even the lowliest sheep molester is treated with a modicum of dignity. In fact, unlike their hardboiled counterparts outside the reservation, they place the greatest value on human life. And even for Leaphorn, the questioning one, the mindless brutality of the outside world can't hold a candle to the inner peace and beauty of the Navajo way.