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Hillerman's Mystery Writing Scales the Heights of Fiction

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The Fallen Man

By Tony Hillerman

HarperCollins

234 pp., $24

With the publication of "The Fallen Man," his 12th in the Leaphorn-Chee detective series, Tony Hillerman's place alongside such great mystery writers as Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is certain. Three reasons make this fact rather than book-review hype.

First, Hillerman is a master of style. His sentences are as lucid, yet subtle, as sunlight in the high desert where Navajo tribal detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee patrol. He creates a vivid, austere sense of place.

Second, Hillerman probes the metaphysical implications of crime, religious taboo, and moral weakness in human nature. His point of view is always compassionate. He taps an innate hunger for justice and harmony.

Third, Hillerman explores misunderstanding and conflict inherent in cross-cultural mores. This more than anything else sets him apart from mystery writers of his generation.

In "The Fallen Man," time and memory weigh heavily on the minds of his characters. Skeletal remains of a mountain climber are found high-up on a ledge on Shiprock mountain. The New Mexico landmark is one of the tribe's most sacred places.

The Dineen (a Navajo word used to describe themselves and meaning "the people") believe Shiprock flew to its present spot millennia ago. The Navajo nation climbed down from its holy ridges and settled in the high desert of Arizona and New Mexico.

No Navajo would desecrate the mountain by climbing it, so whose bones are they? How did they get there? Are they all that's left of an act of trespass? A climbing accident? An act of abandonment and a lonely death? Murder? Suicide?

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