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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

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...

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

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, whose disappearance has puzzled and alarmed her coworkers at the Chaco Canyon site. On terminal leave and initially apathetic, Leaphorn finds his curiosity returning as he pieces together the puzzle of Friedman-Bernal’s disappearance, beginning his search with clues from her appointment calendar. Learning of her research on the Anasazi pots with the Kokopelli design, he starts his hunt for the missing woman at a fundamentalist Christian revival conducted by the Navajo evangelist Slick Nakai, who tells Leaphorn he has an arrangement with Friedman-Bernal to show her and verify the origins of Anasazi pots with the peculiar pattern.

In trouble with Captain Largo for failing to guard a backhoe (stolen from a tribal storage yard while Chee helped a drunken relative), Chee links a suspect to Slick Nakai’s revival, where he meets Leaphorn. Chee eventually discovers that the backhoe was stolen by Joe Nails, a white man, and Jimmy Etcitty, another Navajo who follows the “Jesus Way.” Chee tracks the backhoe to a remote Anasazi ruin, where he finds that both men have been murdered while vandalizing graves. Since both pot hunters have ties to Nakai, Friedman-Bernal, and the Chaco Canyon anthropologists, Leaphorn and Chee agree to work together.

Harrison Houk, a Utah rancher, tells Leaphorn about an Anasazi pot with the Kokopelli design that he had sold to an art dealer in New York City. After tracing Friedman-Bernal’s visit to the dealer and the collector in New York, Leaphorn returns to find Houk murdered, and he trails Friedman-Bernal to the Anasazi site near Houk’s ranch. Meanwhile, Janet Pete, Chee’s Navajo lawyer friend, helps him to discover Friedman-Bernal and Randall Elliot’s mutual interest in the unexplored site in Utah.

At the site, Leaphorn finds the injured anthropologist in the care of Brigham Houk, Harrison’s deranged son. Elliot also arrives, and Leaphorn learns the motives that drove the anthropologist to violence. Elliot has been digging up gravesites in search of genetically marked lower jawbones, documenting his finds until he could later get permits to explore the sites officially. Nails and Etcitty, his helpers, had been selling pots from the gravesites, thus attracting Friedman-Bernal’s attention. To prevent her from destroying his reputation, Elliot killed his helpers and Harrison Houk and intends to murder Friedman-Bernal, but he is himself killed by Brigham. Chee, who had followed Elliot to the site, helps Leaphorn to rescue the anthropologist, while Brigham disappears into the canyon. The mystery solved and order restored, Leaphorn decides not to retire, and he asks Chee to sing a healing ceremony.

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