The Blessing Way is the first of a series of novels by Tony Hillerman, now being continued by his daughter Anne, featuring Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn. This is my first encounter with the series, having been pushed towards it by The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction lectures as one of the earliest and most influential examples of a series featuring Native American characters.
From what I gather having read a little about the book since finishing it, this novel adopts a slightly different focus than later entries in the series by splitting the focus between Leaphorn and white anthropologist Bergen McKee. In the course of the book we spend more time in the company of the latter though Leaphorn is there for the most significant parts of the book and will be the one to explain what happened.
Bergen McKee has come to the Navajo Reservation with an anthropologist colleague for a summer research trip to investigate reports of witchcraft. Leaphorn is working the case of a young man, Luis Horseman, who has fled into the desert under the belief that he has killed someone in a fight. Leaphorn is looking for him but soon receives the news that his body has been found near Ganado with its mouth full of sand. Though the narrative separates Bergen and Leaphorn, it will be clear to the reader that their efforts are linked.
The Blessing Way is generally described as a mystery novel and certainly there are mysterious things going on and a question to be answered but I think it reads more like a thriller. Heading into the final chapters, the book puts one of its two leads in significant physical danger and even in a little combat and when they are grappling with the villain they have little conception of who they are and what their purpose is. The reader can make inferences based on clues in the text but do not expect a series of suspects you could name and pick between. In fact the novel’s secondary characters are barely sketched out at all.
I struggled a little at points in this novel to follow exactly what was going on and I am not entirely sure why. It is perhaps because I came to the book expecting a more typical mystery than I ended up reading or it may reflect that I think the story suffers from the splitting the action between its two protagonists as I felt I never really knew either of them as well as I should like.
While I don’t like to abandon a read that I find frustrating, I think I may well have done were it not for my appreciation for the book’s anthropological details and the discussion of Navajo culture which are woven throughout the novel. Hillerman’s focus didn’t always quite work for me. Sometimes I found myself wishing for more details about an aspect of the culture he was discussing, at others I felt we were spending too long on something that seemed incidental to the story. Still, these details could be fascinating and coupled with the stark isolation of its setting, gave the book a very distinct feel that is quite unlike anything I have read before.
The Blessing Way interested me but left me feeling unsatisfied. Hillerman delivers some wonderful pieces of action and a great sense of place but I was somewhat disappointed by the mystery. I liked the book more as it progressed though and found the final seventy pages to be quite exhilarating, both in terms of its action and also in the way that the different elements of the novel finally fit together. While they won’t be high on my to read list, I expect I’ll return to try some others in this series.