Tuesday, July 23, 2019

PEOPLE OF DARKNESS -- Tony Hillerman

Of even more interest to me than the Navajo origin myths, which comprise the heart and soul of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mystery series, are the stories of how he created its two main characters: Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee. For the myths, Hillerman’s research included heavy reading and personal immersion into the Navajo culture, interviewing tribal elders and attending sacred ceremonies. My research was much easier. I simply read the author’s tell-all memoir, Seldom Disappointed. Last Friday’s report was on the series debut, The Blessing Way which Leaphorn entered as an afterthought. Four books later, Chee made his entrance, reducing Leaphorn to just a name (albeit with a one-book promotion to captain) in People of Darkness.

Hillerman had intended to use Navajos only as minor characters. Relying on his long experience as a news writer, his primary emphasis would be on setting. “If the actors and the story line were weak, maybe I could make the stage scenery so interesting it would carry the book.” The lead character in Blessing is an anthropology professor studying Navajo culture. When the professor needs information from a Navajo friend, Hillerman gives him Joe Leaphorn, a tribal policeman. At this point, the author realized he needed to know more about the Navajo people in order to give Leaphorn credibility. “Making him seem genuine forced me to admit I didn’t know nearly as much as I should about the Dineh.

I talked to Navajo friends, discovered I didn’t even know enough to ask intelligent questions, and began endless hours of reading. Reading everything: various versions of the creation myth, of curing ceremonials, of witchcraft beliefs, clan structures, sand painting, social life, sexual beliefs, taboos, puberty ceremonials, place names, hogan building, etc. I read Ph.D. dissertations, proceedings of dignified and scholarly societies, collected papers of the Peabody Museum, the autobiography of Son of Old Man Hat, the accounts of River Junction Charley, and on and on and on. Now I was ready to interrogate Navajos. And the Navajos I asked were ready to recognize that I was motivated by something more than idle curiosity.”

The professor remains the central character, but Leaphorn’s is a strong supporting role—so strong he’s promoted from officer to lieutenant and takes the lead in the next two novels. And in the process he teaches Hillerman a costly lesson. Excited by a film company’s interest in the second book, Dance Hall of the Dead, he signed a contract giving the producer TV rights to the Leaphorn character. The movie was never made, but Hillerman’s star was now “held hostage.” Years later, when Robert Redford approached him about making movies of three novels, Hillerman had to pay to break the contract. He confesses in Seldom Disappointed, “Ransoming this figment of my imagination cost me twenty thousand dollars and earned me a place in Guinness Book of Records if it ever lists classic stupidities.”

Chee already had joined the People of Darkness cast by the time Redford came along. Hillerman created him, partly for artistic reasons, he said, “but also because my fondness for Joe Leaphorn was undermined by the knowledge that I only owned part of him, having signed away TV rights.” Perhaps Leaphorn’s one-book promotion to captain was an unconscious gratuity for being shunted aside—Hillerman never mentioned it--but he did admit to the occasional error: “Alas, my books tend to be noted for glitches, where I have characters drive south when I meant north, for example, or change the name of characters in the middle of a chapter, etc.” Going with “glitch” as the more comfortable explanation, Leaphorn is back on stage in the next episode, The Dark Wind, where he remains thereafter with his proper rank, co-starring as Chee’s superior up to and beyond active duty into venerable retirement where he becomes, as Chee likes to needle him, “The Legendary Lt. Leaphorn.”

But it’s all Chee in People of Darkness. We meet him as a sergeant, which I had forgotten from my first reading of the series nearly four decades ago. As I recall, and as my recollection was refreshed this time, rank doesn’t come into play much with Chee—even when he did a stint as “acting lieutenant” in a later novel. Besides introducing Chee in People, Hillerman brought in another new character, but just for this outing. Its unusually complicated plot, which “proved terribly tough to keep...from being as boring to read as it was to write,” prompted him to try something “the bona fide masters of suspense were doing. First I had to have a professional hit man— a species I have never believed in.” To add authenticity to this character Hillerman drew on a death-row interview he’d conducted as a journalist. Far as I’m concerned his fictional killer is as authentic as anyone I would ever wish to encounter in the real. This addition to the “boring” plot that has Chee methodically trying to find survivors of a long-ago oil-well explosion, along with a perky young, blue-eyed single schoolteacher who joins Chee on the search, ramps the story up to a suspense level well worthy of those “bona fide masters” whose success had inspired him. 
With the ingenuity of a magpie building its nest, Hillerman made use of odd idea scraps he picked up along the way, such as his detailed description of the three WWII medals—a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Silver Star—found in the mysterious “keepsakes” box of a character. Hillerman had received all three himself in that war.

His research for People led to a joint venture with his “big brother,” Barney, a geologist who specialized in analyzing core samples at oil-drilling sites. On a visit to a site in Texas, where Hillerman kept an eye out for plot ideas, the two cooked up the idea that led to the successful photo book they called Hillerman Country. Barney had been thinking of leaving his nomadic life chasing oil wells and turning his photography hobby into a career. Their mother’s health had begun failing, and Barney, still a bachelor, decided to build a house to share with her. Some years later, with Barney now married and with three adopted children, the two brothers decided to tackle the project they’d talked about, to try to capture in words and pictures the Four Corners country that provides the distinctive background for Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police novels.

In one of the several boxes of books and sentimental keepsakes I have yet to unpack from a couple of moves ago, rests my strikingly beautiful, coffee-table-size, clothbound copy of Hillerman Country, which, thoroughly hooked on the mystery series by then, I’d bought when it came out in 1991. Hillerman adds a characteristically self-deflating note to the story, this one with a sad twist. 

The experience taught me that, published author or not, one’s role as Little Brother lasts as long as life,” he confessed in Seldom Disappointed. “Before [Barney] had a chance to notice that the reviewers were more impressed with his landscapes than with my text, he had a sudden and fatal heart attack while shooting another assignment.”

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]


Thursday, July 18, 2019

THE BLESSING WAY – Tony Hillerman

By the way, The Blessing Way is really The Enemy Way, as Tony Hillerman reveals in his memoir, Seldom Disappointed: “I named it The Enemy Way but my editor for reasons beyond my ken changed that to The Blessing Way.”
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a big cahoot which Way is the Way. Each is way too complicated for your everyday Belacani, yet, perhaps because of this, all the more fascinating. Belacani? That would be Navajo for “white man.” If nothing else, Hillerman’s 18-book Navajo Tribal Police mystery series is a good way to learn a few Navajo words along with a great deal about the culture and religion—known collectively as “The Navajo Way”--of these early Americans. So accurate are the Navajo depictions in these novels they were used in Navajo schools, and earned for Hillerman the tribe’s Special Friends of the Dineh Award.
This is my second go at the Tony Hillerman canon. I read them all in the ‘80s after a friend recommended them. I suppose instead of re-reading these I should leap ahead and read at least one of the five Leaphorn/Chee mysteries by his daughter Anne Hillerman, written since Tony’s death in 2008 at age 83. Not sure why I haven’t read any of Anne’s yet. Some sort of superstition, maybe? A witching thing? I can’t rule that out, but for the sake of Belacani probity I hereby promise: after reading People of Darkness, which I’ve already downloaded because altho it’s the fourth in Tony’s series it’s the one that introduces Jim Chee, I will read Spider Woman’s Daughter, the first by Anne carrying the baton from her dad.
Chee starts in the fourth, you say? You mean...yup, Lt. Joe Leaphorn soloed in the first three. Patterned after Tony’s friend, who was sheriff of Hutchinson County, New Mexico, Leaphorn was to carry the load alone forever and a day, until his agent and publisher persuaded him to swing for the bleachers, write a “break-out” book, with elements reaching a wider readership...
I had started this book with Leaphorn as the central character, but by now my vision of him was firm and fixed. Leaphorn, with his master’s degree in anthropology, was much too sophisticated to show the interest I wanted him to show in all this. The idea wasn’t working. This is the artistic motive. Behind that was disgruntlement. If any of my books ever did make it into the movies, why share the loot needlessly? Add greed to art and the motivation is complete. Thus I produce Jim Chee, younger, much less assimilated, more traditional, just the man I needed.
Not sure which I read first as my introduction to the series, but I’m pretty sure Chee was in it, because in my recollection when Leaphorn eventually appeared I thought he was the new character. Evidently someone involved with Harper & Row’s ebook reissue chose convenience or marketing reach over accuracy, as the The Blessing Way, Tony’s first novel, is listed on Amazon.com as “A Leaphorn and Chee Novel Book 1.” The listing fooled even me, the Hillerman veteran, wondering when Jim Chee would enter the picture until I clicked over to Seldom Disappointed and found out what in hell was wrong.
Not that there is anything wrong with The Blessing Way—other than its title--which features an Enemy Way, a much longer and more complex ceremony held over a three-day period to counter the magic of a witch that’s infected an individual or family. A Blessing Way involves much simpler rituals, including a sweat bath and a medicine man’s “sing.” I’ll admit to getting thoroughly confused reading Hillerman’s intricately detailed account of the Enemy Way in The Blessing Way, where the focus is on a contagious fear among reservation families that a witch, taking the form of a Wolf, is running amok, killing and mutilating animals, and suspected of killing a young fugitive hiding from police in the reservation’s cliffs and canyons.
But I wasn’t alone. Leaphorn admits to himself to being almost hopelessly confused as to the who and what behind the witch scare, and why and how Luis Horseman was killed and dumped beside a public road to be easily found by anyone happening along. Tossed into this mix are a couple of professors doing research on the reservation, one of them coincidentally studying the Navajo witch tradition. Hillerman manages his complicated unusual plot with surprising skill for a first novel. I believe a key to my quickly trusting Hillerman’s command of the story was his having the strong, intelligent character of Leaphorn struggling to comprehend what was going on as well. And I should add that far from being a police procedural, Leaphorn’s physical presence is largely incidental to the main narrative. It’s his mystery to solve, but other, supporting characters are drawn so keenly and fully in their involvement, their peril, and their inner conflicts that I found myself engaging sympathetically with them more than with the cop. Yet, his role is so vital and indelible, and his persistence so reliable I had no doubt ultimately he would prevail.
Hillerman, UPI reporter

Earlier I mentioned Hillerman’s skill as a writer. As a wordsmith, a painter of detail and panorama, sound and smell and interior landscape, he has given us a debut novel that steals the breath away. Here’s a scene through the eyes and senses of Dr. Bergen McKee, the anthropologist who’s studying the Navajo witch phenomenon:
“McKee had been startled by the sudden brighter-than-day flash of the lightning bolt. The explosion of thunder had followed it almost instantly, setting off a racketing barrage of echoes cannonading from the canyon cliffs. The light breeze, shifting suddenly down canyon, carried the faintly acrid smell of ozone released by the electrical charge and the perfume of dampened dust and rain-struck grass. It filled McKee’s nostrils with nostalgia.
“There was none of the odor of steaming asphalt, dissolving dirt, and exhaust fumes trapped in humidity which marked an urban rain. It was the smell of a country childhood, all the more evocative because it had been forgotten. And for the moment McKee...reveled mentally in happy recollections of Nebraska, of cornfields, and of days when dreams still seemed real and plausible.
The light of the climbing moon had moved halfway across the canyon floor. Nothing stirred. The canyon was a crevice of immense, motionless, brooding quiet. McKee studied the outcropping carefully, shifted his eyes slowly down canyon, examining every shape under the flat, yellow light, and then examining every shadow. He felt the rough surface of the rock cutting into his knees and started to shift his weight, but again there was the primal urging to caution.
It was then he caught the motion.”
For an ex-newspaperman’s first major leap into fiction, this simply should not have been ignored by any publisher, major or minor. That it was, initially, because “No one will read about Indians,” says more about the publishing biz than tales from the Rez.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, July 11, 2019

GO WITH ME – Castle Freeman Jr.

Go With Me came out to critical acclaim eleven years ago, loved by literary types and scorned by others. Had I read any of these others' Amazon "customer reviews" of the book I might have taken a pass and selected something a tad less "literary." The book was so uninteresting, wrote C. Lee, "I would much prefer chewing cardboard!" And from Brian Driver, "The story is boring, repetitive, derogatory, simplistic, and a waste of time." I saw renowned novelist Cormac McCarthy’s work mentioned favorably in comparison to Castle Freeman’s style, which would have further cautioned me against downloading Go With Me, as apparently I am in the minority of fashionable fiction aficionados who find The Road and Blood Meridian and the others no country for us.
Not having seen any of this, but having recently read another of Freeman’s novels, All That I Have, which I liked, I downloaded Go With Me and started reading, and soon started wondering if I’d made the same mistake as C. Lee and Brian Driver and the others with whom the book left an unpleasant taste. No problem with the beginning, tho, as it starts quite nicely--literarily, in fact:
Midsummer: The long days begin in bright, rising mist and never end. Their hours stretch, they stretch. They stretch to hold everything you can shove into them; they’ll take whatever you’ve got. Action, no action, good ideas, bad ideas, talk, love, trouble, every kind of lie— they’ll hold them all. Work? No. Nobody works any longer. To be sure, they did. The farmers worked. The midsummer days were the best working time of the year for the farmers, but the farmers are gone. They worked, they built, but they’re gone. Who’s next?
The setting is rural Vermont. The writing has some of the sparse, flinty New England feel of All That I Have, and the novel is short, like the other, so I settled in for a quick, enjoyable quasi-literary read with oddly interesting characters and an oddly engaging plot. And I got all of that, but I can see what put the others off--readers who no doubt prefer a swiftly paced predictably unpredictable story with a truly nasty villain and oh-so-clever dialogue from starkly painted characters they could imagine portrayed by actors from their favorite TV shows. Oh, and plenty of violently shed blood, bone, dignity, and life! And there is some of that violence in Go With Me. The very first victim of deadly violence is a cat.
Sheriff Ripley Wingate finds the cat corpse in a car parked next to the courthouse when he arrives at work in the morning. A young woman is curled up on the front seat asleep. A kitchen knife is on the seat beside her. Wingate taps on the window, the woman awakens and grabs the knife. Comes now the first of author Castle Freeman’s evidently signature quirky dialogue:
Help you?” Sheriff Wingate asked her.
I’m waiting for the sheriff,” the young woman said.
I’m waiting for the sheriff,” the young woman said again, louder, to be heard through the closed windows of the little car.
I’m the sheriff.”
You are?”
Why don’t you come on inside?” the sheriff said. He nodded toward the courthouse.
The young woman made no move to leave the car, but she leaned across the seat and rolled the passenger’s window down a couple of inches.
You don’t have a uniform,” she said.
No,” the sheriff said. He straightened and turned to start back to the courthouse.
How do I know you’re the sheriff?”
I don’t know what to tell you,” the sheriff said. “You can sit out here long as you want. Maybe another sheriff will come along.”

So...the woman complies, and soon she’s telling Sheriff Wingate in his cramped little basement office that a man has been stalking her, has smashed the rear window of her car and killed her cat. “I need help,” she says.
Help with what?”
He’s after me...a man. He wants to hurt me.”
A man?”
That’s right. He watches me. He follows me. He won’t let me alone.”
Blackway,” Wingate says. Then, after several pages of the same barely functional conversation reminiscent of an Abbott and Costello skit, he eventually tells her, with no explanation, there’s “not much” he can do. He suggests she might find someone to help her at the old chair factory.
There’s usually a few fellows around there. Ask for Whizzer.” she does, tells the “fellows” there her story, and soon two of them agree to help her find Blackway and persuade him to leave her alone.
So...the stage has finally eked its way out for us. We have the distressed damsel, the villain, and what at least one reviewer called the “Greek chorus,” i.e. the “fellows” who hang out at the old chair factory. No surprise the damsel is attractive, as several of the fellows can’t seem to keep from mentioning at every opportunity her “very long” brown hair. They’re not especially enamored of “the mouth on her,” quite quick with the eff word, they noticed. But that hair…
And our villain, whom we never hear or are given a direct look at, or even learn his first name, is always in shadows and what we know of him is virtually always second or third hand. Here’s what one local woman says of Blackway: “He’s like the village criminal...he’s what we’ve got up here instead of organized crime.”

The two men helping the damsel are Nate the Great, a big, strong, dumb (practically mute) young fellow, and Lester, a wily old ex-lumberjack who “knows all the tricks.”
Well then it’s hi ho and off they go, not dancing along any yellow brick road, but working their way through the dives and abandoned lumber camps and into the deep dark woods where four Frenchmen disappeared some years back, as did more recently a college girl who went a’camping in there. Along the way, Lester stops at his house and gets what he claims are “curtain rods” wrapped in black plastic bags. Whenever Blackway is mentioned, Nate the Great utters one of the few words we hear from him: “I ain’t afraid of Blackway.”

From the damsel and the Greek chorus back at the old chair factory we learn Sheriff Wingate had fired Blackway as his deputy after stopping the damsel and her boyfriend on an alleged traffic infraction, and stealing a load of marijuana from them. The boyfriend ran away without so much as a by-your-leave, the damsel tells her companions, allowing a note of scorn to color her voice. She refuses to run because “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The narrative, once the trio hits Blackway’s trail, switches back and forth between the chorus and the trio. I found this a tad tedious at first until it became clear their Abbott/Costello idiotic miscues and misunderstandings were providing valuable background and insights into the lead characters—including the blackguard Blackway. I even got a few laughs out of them.
Castle Freeman Jr.
 If cardboard truly tastes better than Go With Me, as C. Lee promises in his Amazon “customer review,” then I surely have been missing out on some mighty good eating. And I sure as hell ain’t afraid of no Blackway!

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, July 4, 2019

THE LIGHT OF DAY – Eric Ambler

I downloaded Eric Ambler's The Light of Day because in perusing the list of Amblers on Kindle I saw that the 1962 film Topkapi was based on Light of Day. Not sure I've ever seen Topkapi, but I remember when it came out, about a year before I joined the Army. If I saw it back then I might have been too drunk to remember much more than that it involved a group of professional jewel thieves stealing priceless jewells from a museum in Turkey. But that vague recollection—if you could even call it that—was enuf to persuade me to make Light of Day my first Ambler. It won't be the last, either.
Not sure why I'd never read Ambler before. I was familiar with the name, and some of the titles, and might have seen a movie or two based on his novels. What steered me to the Kindle Bookstore last week was reading Elgin Bleeker's review of The Mask of Dimitrios (also known as A Coffin for Dimitrios), which rang some familiar bells—again because of a movie, this one starring two of my favorite noir actors, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Elgin's review of the novel can be found on his blog The Dark Time.
I'll concede up front I didn't think I was going to like Light of Day, because I didn't think I was going to like the narrator--Arthur Abdel Simpson, born of an Egyptian mother and British officer father. A petty hustler of tourists, he struck me as one of the reasons I've always felt uncomfortably wary traveling. The sort of character Peter Lorre would play in his smarmy, sneaky, larcenous way (Peter Ustinov played Simpson in the film, which should have rendered the character a tad more likeable).
It was Simpson’s honesty about himself and his situational ethics, and his quick and disarming gift of gab, that quickly hooked me solidly. I had to know how he’d get out of the damned mess he got himself into with the tourist he sold his guide/chauffeur’s services to, who catches him in his room trying to steal some travelers checks. The tourist, whom we know as “Harper,” turns out to be a bigger hustler than Simpson, blackmailing him into driving a Lincoln Continental from Greece to Turkey for a woman who would meet him there. Harper would join them later in Istanbul. As we can most certainly surmise, from the oddness of this arrangement and from Simpson’s comment on his own misgivings, shortcomings, and tactical blunders, the plot has nowhere to go but to thicken.
And, of course, it does, it thickens to the consistency of wet cement when Turkish customs officials find guns and grenades hidden in the Lincoln’s doors. Simpson faces a long prison term, or worse, unless he agrees to play along with Turkish counter-espionage officials who want him to find out what the weapons are intended for. They suspect a plot against the Turkish government. Simpson suspects a heroin smuggling operation. Either way, he has no choice but to play along. Turkish security agents follow the Lincoln all of the way to Istanbul and keep a constant surveillance of Simpson and his eventual several nefarious colleagues, while Simpson must report regularly to the security people everything he can learn about whatever plot this strange group has in mind.
Of course there are many close calls for Simpson, whom, by now, I’m identifying with so closely I actually cringed and blew out some of my own breath to see if I could tell if it stinks after the poor schmuck (schlemiel? dork?) overhears some of the plotters talking about him. “Even Arthur could do the rest of that job,” says the attractive woman in the group, and laughs. “The indignant sheep? With his breath you wouldn’t even need the grenades, I guess. You’d get a mass surrender.”

The sting stays, and he mentions it in a little soliloquy at the end, which eased my own insecurities a tad as well, as my identification with him—as I most often do with fictional narrators and protagonists—began disengaging:I am not asking to be loved. I am not asking to be liked. I do not mind being loathed, if that will make some pettifogging government official happier. It is a matter of principle. If necessary, I shall take my case to the United Nations. They caned the British after Suez; they can cane them again for me. Sheep I may be; and perhaps certain persons find my breath displeasing; but I am no longer merely indignant. I am angry now. I give the British Government fair warning. I refuse to go on being an anomaly. Is that quite clear? I refuse!”
Not exactly my hero, but I can kinda see where that is coming from.
Now, please don’t see that little rant, which concludes the novel, is a plot spoiler. We know from the get-go Simpson’s going to get out of whatever happens alive and able to tell his story. What you don’t know, altho you’ve probly guessed by now, is just what this motley bunch is plotting. Well...I’m not going to be coy here, as there really is no doubt that most if not all of you have guessed correctly that these criminals are going to try to steal a significant fortune in jewels from the historic Turkish Topkapi Palace, also known as the Seraglio. And once we know what’s up with that, the plot segues from Simpson’s guesswork into the tactical planning and execution of the theft. This is where Eric Ambler’s reputation for authenticity shines like a harvest moon. His descriptions of the palace and its history, as relayed to us thru Simpson (who’s worked there as a guide) are so detailed and fascinating I felt a stirring somewhere in my aging loins to venture out once again to a foreign country, risking being fleeced by a Simpson-like scalawag, just to see the place for myself. 
Topkapi Palace (top)
And the theft itself is chock full of harrowing suspense, which, at one point, is so harrowing Simpson, who’s helping the thieves, becomes ill and nearly passes out from acrophobia…
OK, that I suffer from acrophobia myself, and what with my identifying with Simpson and being completely caught up in the nerve-twanging thrills entailed in the potentials of catastrophic failure versus ecstatic success, and a general dread of bad breath, I...o lort...I...I just...I can’t go on... 
[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]