The Blessing Way
by Tony Hillerman
Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Harper & Row: New York, 1970
201 pages
collected in —
The Joe Leaphorn Mysteries
April 2016


The Blessing Way is the first of Tony Hillerman's excellent mysteries of the American Southwest, introducing Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navaho Tribal Police. The characters are an interesting and even surprising mix of locals, returned locals, and outsiders, colluding and colliding, as in all this series, in the Southwestern desert and mountains.

The plot really isn't mostly Joe Leaphorn's story, though. The novel develops into adventure more than mystery or detection or police procedural, although it has all these and romance as well. Leaphorn's friend Bergen McKee is a professor of anthropology in Albuquerque who previously has researched witchcraft in the Navaho country. He's author of a monograph titled Social and Psychotherapeutic Utility of Navaho Wolf and Frenzy Superstitions — which makes both McKee and his subject sound rather dull. In fact neither turn out to be dull at all when McKee comes again to the Navaho country and encounters what seems to be witchcraft in frightening and effective action.

The novel opens with a minor fugitive named Luis Horseman conducting a medicine ritual alone in the desert; he's on foot and hungry and hiding from the law, but he's about to stumble across a problem far bigger than his own:

He replaced the turquoise bear in the medicine pouch and rose stiffly to his feet. He was pretty sure that wasn't the right song. It was for deer, he thought. To make the deer come out where you could shoot them. But maybe the kangaroo rats would hear it, too. He looked carefully across the plateau, searching the foreground first, then the mid-distance, finally the great green slopes of the Lukachukai Mountains, which rose to the east. Then he moved away from the shelter of the stunted juniper and walked rapidly northwestward, moving silently and keeping to the bottom of the shallow arroyos when he could. He walked gracefully and silently. Suddenly he stopped. The corner of his eye had caught motion on the floor of the Kam Bimghi Valley. Far below him and a dozen miles to the west, a puff of dust was suddenly visible against a formation of weathered red rocks. It might be a dust devil, kicked up by one of the Hard Flint Boys playing their tricks on the Wind Children. But it was windless now. The stillness of late afternoon had settled over the eroded waste below him.

Must have been a truck, Horseman thought, and the feeling of dread returned. He moved cautiously out of the wash behind a screen of pinions and stood motionless, examining the landscape ...

Joe Leaphorn's search for Luis Horseman draws an assortment of people, mostly unawares, into the larger mystery which is far more complex and deadly. Investigation tinged with danger goes with Leaphorn's profession, but Bergen McKee finds himself caught in undreamt-of, mysterious and fast-moving adventure as though he'd triggered an avalanche from a silent desert slope.

So The Blessing Way is an outstanding start to Tony Hillerman's mysteries of the Navaho people and landscape, and to forces unseen which may be spiritual or not, and working for good or not. The desert may seem sparse, but it is not empty.


© 2016 Robert Wilfred Franson

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