(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...

(The entire section is 516 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Set amid the Anasazi ruins of the American Southwest, A Thief of Time is an anthropological mystery in which Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, two members of the Navajo Tribal Police, work together to locate a missing anthropologist and to solve the murders of two pot hunters, “thieves of time” who ransack Anasazi graves to steal artifacts, thereby damaging the sites for researchers trying to understand the past. Narrated from the omniscient third-person point of view, most of the novel’s chapters alternate between Leaphorn and Chee as they conduct parallel investigations, using their intimate familiarity with Navajo culture and the Southwestern landscape. Although solving the mystery provides the major physical action, both characters also deal with personal problems that add significant emotional tension to their investigations.

The novel opens with Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal’s nighttime arrival at an unexplored Anasazi ruin in southern Utah. Friedman-Bernal is looking for potsherds bearing the pattern of Kokopelli, the humpbacked fertility god of Indian myth. The pots are apparently the work of a single artist whose pottery was first unearthed at the Chaco Canyon site in New Mexico. Friedman-Bernal believes that this potter’s work may help to explain the migratory patterns and mysterious disappearance of the Anasazi people seven centuries ago. Injured in a fall, the anthropologist discovers someone has already ransacked the graves, and the only episode featuring this character ends shrouded in mystery and suspense.

Leaphorn, depressed and grieving over the death of his wife Emma, agrees to help find the anthropologist,...

(The entire section is 678 words.)