Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504
Coyote Waits refers to the Navajo notion of the trickster, a mythic figure who is always ready to disrupt humankind’s harmony by bringing chaos. Every culture has some concept of bad luck that strikes randomly. A Vietnamese relative of one of the murdered men in this novel refers to a...
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Coyote Waits refers to the Navajo notion of the trickster, a mythic figure who is always ready to disrupt humankind’s harmony by bringing chaos. Every culture has some concept of bad luck that strikes randomly. A Vietnamese relative of one of the murdered men in this novel refers to a saying among her people that “fate is as gentle with men as the mongoose is with mice.” Navajo officer Jim Chee responds with his culture’s version: “Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry.”
The comparison of similar concepts in different cultures, however differently they may exhibit themselves, is at the heart of what Hillerman does in the Chee-Leaphorn ethno-cultural novels. As his father told him when he was young, all people are the same, but once you know that you can find the differences. Clearly the author took these words to heart. His fictional officers operate from that same bedrock and follow police procedure to discover what cultural differences in particular might have motivated murderers to commit their crimes.
This novel opens with Chee failing to provide backup help for his friend, fellow officer Delbert Nez, who has told him by radio that he is about to collar a suspect he has been tracking. When Nez is late to their rendezvous, Chee belatedly goes to look for him and finds him shot and left to die in a burning car. Although Chee burns his hands trying to save him, it is too late. Almost immediately, Chee finds Ashie Pinto, a Native American shaman in his eighties who is walking down the road holding the murder weapon in one hand and a whiskey bottle in the other. The old man seems to confirm his guilt by repeating “I am ashamed” to Chee.
Case closed? Not quite. Lieutenant Leaphorn is approached by the family of the accused and a friend, Dr. Louisa Bourebonette, a mythologist in American studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Because his deceased wife was related to this family, which made them his in-laws, Leaphorn feels obligated to help them. When he discovers that the old man was miles from his home with no car but a bottle of expensive scotch and fifty-dollar bills in his pocket, he realizes something does not add up, and he begins his own investigation, paralleling Chee’s.
Although it appears right up to the end to both Chee and Leaphorn that Ashie Pinto could not have killed the policeman, Pinto confesses in court. However sad the ending, what is interesting is how many red herrings or actually plausible lines of inquiry Hillerman has presented the reader. It is ironic that the policemen are doing everything they can to prove the Native American shaman is not guilty, when he is. Throughout the novel, Leaphorn makes clear his dissatisfaction with Chee for not being a team player. At the end, however, Leaphorn considers that the officer’s intelligence and creative insights might be well suited for criminal investigations just like this one.