Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A Thief of Time, the eighth novel in Hillerman’s series of eleven mysteries set on the vast Navajo Reservation, represents a significant artistic achievement in the depth and complexity of the author’s portrayal of Navajo culture. Always a masterful storyteller, Hillerman has uniquely infused the classic novel of detection, which emphasizes the linear thrust of action, with the psychological and spiritual complexity of holistic Navajo beliefs, creating through the consciousnesses of Leaphorn and Chee a rich texture of interlinking details and events. The structure becomes almost nonlinear (like the Native American oral tale), as apparently disparate threads from past and present and from remote distances are woven together into a single, unified pattern of meaning, discoverable only through the Navajo perspective of Leaphorn and Chee.

The first three of Hillerman’s mysteries, The Blessing Way (1970), Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), and Listening Woman (1978), feature Leaphorn, the modern, older, cynical detective. Jim Chee, a younger, more traditional detective who reconciles his vocation as a tribal policeman with his avocation as a yataali, a Navajo singer, is the main character of the next three novels, The People of Darkness (1980), The Dark Wind (1982), and The Ghostway (1984). Leaphorn and Chee are finally brought together in Skinwalkers (1986) and are reunited in A Thief of Time (1988). Hillerman continued to pair the two in Talking God (1989), Coyote Waits (1990), and Sacred Clowns (1993), but it is in A Thief of Time that he most effectively provides a balanced portrayal of characters whose own personal growth and interaction are central to the conflict and its resolution.

Although Hillerman disclaims writing “mainstream” novels and calls his work “category fiction,” he successfully engages the reader in a compelling anthropological mystery with social and moral significance. It is a tribute to Hillerman’s mastery of his craft that the reader never bumps into the author with his arms full of ethnographic materials; Hillerman’s substantial anthropological knowledge is conveyed artfully through the interaction of setting, plot, and characterization.