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Although Joe Leaphorn dominates three earlier novels — The Blessing Way (1970), Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), and Listening Woman (1977) — Hillerman adds still more depth to his characterization of Leaphorn in Skinwalkers. Described in detail is Leaphorn's corkboard-mounted office map of "Indian Country" with his written annotations and the colored pins with which he marks crime locations. A symbol of Leaphorn's legendary eccentricity and rationalism, the map proves invaluable when it reveals connections between three seemingly unrelated killings.

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Jim Chee also appears in his own set of early Hillerman novels. A police officer whose interest in his heritage is so strong that he is learning to perform a complicated Navajo ceremonial sing, Chee ironically is mistaken for a skinwalker and nearly killed. The attempt on his life precipitates the investigation that brings him together with Leaphorn to work on the same case. Chee is described physically from Leaphorn's point of view as "destined to be a skinny old man." This depiction is consistent with Hillerman's preferred method of characterization — the succinct description or personality sketch.

Minor characters are delineated with a phrase or two or a brief description of physical traits or characteristic speech patterns. In some cases, a character is labeled by a distinguishing costume, attitude, or posture — thus Janet Pete, the lawyer, is initially introduced from Chee's perspective as "Silk Shirt," and the no-nonsense owner of a remote trading post is known as "Iron Woman."

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