A Thief of Time Summary
by Tony Hillerman

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A Thief of Time Summary

A Thief of Time is a mystery novel by Tony Hillerman. The novel is part of a series that focuses on two characters: Leaphorn and Chee. At the beginning of the novel, the author reveals that both of them are going through problems in life. Chee and his partner broke up because the latter wanted to move to another city. However, Chee wanted to stay in Navajo. Nonetheless, he is attracted to a lawyer called Janet who is already in a relationship. On the other hand, Leaphorn is about to go on indefinite leave due to a terminal illness and is soon retiring after a sudden death back home.

Leaphorn is always preoccupied looking for Eleanor Friedman-Bernal. She is a pothunter. It becomes apparent that Leaphorn is trying to distract himself to avoid sinking into depression. Previously, Chee had been careless and let a huge excavating tractor be stolen under his watch. The events that led to the disappearance of the backhoe are strongly connected to Leophorn’s investigation. Therefore, the two end up solving the mystery of Eleanor’s disappearance together.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

A Thief of Time is the eighth novel in the series of Leaphorn and Chee mysteries. The phrase “a thief of time” refers to an unscrupulous pot hunter who steals pots from Native American sacred ruins for very lucrative rewards. As the novel reveals, old pots go for exorbitant sums: Leaphorn reads an auction catalog advertising a burial pot for more than thirty-eight thousand dollars.

When an anthropologist disappears, Leaphorn investigates. When a backhoe disappears, Chee is on the case. The two separate cases seem to coincide when it turns out that Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal specializes in pots from the long vanished Anasazi people, and illegal pot poachers presumably used the backhoe. When the backhoe is found, there are two dead bodies on the ground nearby. Not surprisingly, the two policemen end up working together.

Those who work with Friedman-Bernal are questioned, including the beautiful Maxie Davis and the wealthy Randall Elliott, who would do anything to impress Maxie. Following the path of illegal pots leads both policemen to the Reverend Slick Nakai, who holds tent revivals. Also questioned is the wealthy Harrison Houk, whose schizophrenic son slaughtered the rest of his family some years before. When the elder Houk later turns up as the third murder victim, a note is found on him saying “She’s still alive up.” Leaphorn finds the missing “doctor hyphenated,” as Leaphorn calls her, in the Anasazi ruins. Brigham Houk has managed to keep her barely alive there. He has been living as a hermit, with monthly visits and aid from his father.

Leaphorn is interrupted in his efforts to get the injured woman out by the appearance of Elliott. Brigham Houk disappears, for this is the very “devil” he saw push the woman off the cliff and cause her injuries. While playing for time, Leaphorn extracts a confession from Elliott, who has committed all the killings and framed Friedman-Bernal as a thief of time. He has committed all his crimes in order to impress Maxie by proving his theory of why the Anasazi people disappeared. The pots are peripheral—he is tracking genetic flaws. Brigham returns in time to shoot him with an arrow before he kills Leaphorn and the woman. As Brigham disappears again, Chee shows up, led to the site by his own deductions.

Significantly, the crimes the two policemen must work together to solve are not the only deaths in this novel. Leaphorn has just lost his wife, Emma, and has decided to quit the police force. His dealing with his grief creates a backdrop for the novel, as he comes to understand traditional Navajo attitudes toward death in a way he has never needed to concern himself with before death became personal. That he has gained a truer understanding of his Navajo background is apparent at the very end of the novel. Leaphorn, the nonspiritual Navajo, asks Chee, the shaman, if he will perform a healing ceremony for him by singing the Blessing...

(The entire section is 1,376 words.)