A Thief of Time

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When L.D. Thatcher, a Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officer, calls on his old friend Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn to help him investigate the theft of artifacts from an Anasazi site, he is motivated by two reasons. Joe Leaphorn is a detective whose powers of analysis have made him a local legend, and he is a friend who is suffering from the apathy of deep grief over the death of his wife. When it turns out that the suspected thief, Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, has been missing for almost a week, Leaphorn finds himself confronted with a puzzle composed of seemingly random events. The puzzle begins to tickle Leaphorn’s analytical mind, his Navajo mind that knows all things are linked, that there are no effects without causes, that even the wing of the corn beetle alters the course of the wind. The puzzle becomes more complicated when Leaphorn runs into Officer Jim Chee at a revival meeting conducted by a Navajo evangelist, Slick Nakai, who saves souls and occasionally fences Anasazi artifacts.

Chee, who has a penchant for trouble and for irritating his superior, Captain Largo, is tracking down the theft of a flatbed trailer and forklift from a tribal storage yard for which Chee was responsible. Chee discovers that the backhoe has been stolen by a white man named Joe Nails and a “Jesus Way” Navajo, Jimmy Etcitty. Chee’s stolen backhoe case becomes an investigation of multiple murder when Chee finds Nails and Etcitty murdered near an Anasazi grave site that they were robbing for artifacts. In an effort to find out more about how Nails and Etcitty were disposing of their stolen goods, Chee searches out the ubiquitous Slick Nakai and meets Leaphorn, who has discovered that Dr. Friedman-Bernal bought an occasional pot from Nakai, purchasing only special pots, pots decorated with the image of Kokopelli, the flute-playing fertility god of the Anasazi. These two Navajo policemen (separate protagonists in Hillerman’s other novels) reluctantly pool their efforts to solve the murders and find the missing Dr. Friedman-Bernal.

Leaphorn and Chee embark on an investigative odyssey that takes them...

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A Thief of Time

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time is the eighth in the Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series of detective novels, set among the people of the Navajo Indian Reservation. Both Leaphorn and Chee have been separate protagonists in Hillerman’s earlier works. The detached, analytical Leaphorn appeared in the first of the series, to be supplanted by the more reactive and intuitive Chee. The laconic Leaphorn, however, proved too fascinating a character for Hillerman to abandon. In A Thief of Time, he brings Leaphorn and Chee together in a tentative partnership: They must combine their respective talents in solving a series of crimes ranging from theft to multiple murder.

Hillerman sets for himself a difficult narrative task. While A Thief of Time follows the pattern of standard detective fiction—featuring a puzzling crime that yields only to the superior intellect of its protagonist—Leaphorn and Chee must pursue the thread of their investigative efforts into the arcane world of physical anthropology and archaeology. Because Hillerman dares to inform as well as entertain, he must tell the story and at the same time establish the scientific context in which the figures of the novel move.

A Thief of Time explores one of the more intriguing anthropological questions in the American Southwest: the disappearance of the Anasazi, the ancient inhabitants of the Colorado plateau who occupied the land before the coming of the Navajo and vanished at the end of the fourteenth century. The cliff houses of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon stand as mute testimony to the evidence of their passing. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal is an archaeologist who is attempting to solve the riddle of their disappearance. She is on the track of an Anasazi potter who decorated pots with the image of Kokopelli, a figure called “the flute player” because sticklike arms seem to be holding a flute to a tiny head, and the humpbacked figure appears to be dancing to music lost in the passage of time.

In the opening chapter of A Thief of Time, Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal makes her way across the deserted landscape of Many Ruins Canyon on a personal mission that requires the secrecy of nightfall and the comfort of her .25-caliber automatic pistol. As she hikes up the canyon, the moonlight illuminates the familiar pictographs of Kokopelli, but here in Many Ruins Canyon is a painting of Kokopelli unique in its depiction, an image of this ancient figure lying on its back with the flute pointed skyward. Friedman-Bernal remembers the words of her former colleague and lover: “You have found Kokopelli’s home. This is where he sleeps.” In her nervous isolation she imagines that she hears the sound of a whistle. When she hears it a second time, she is sure that it is not her imagination:Just behind her. Not a night bird. No sort of reptile. It was a melody the Beatles had made popular. “Hey, Jude,” the words began. But Eleanor didn’t recognize it. She was too terrified by the humped shape that was coming out of the moonlight into this pool of darkness.

Hillerman skillfully merges myth into the chilling immediacy of the present. Some grotesque and apparently supernatural menace is at work in the tribal lands of the Navajo Reservation, for Friedman-Bernal disappears.

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee become connected with her disappearance serendipitously, at a time when both are wrestling with the personal demons of their private lives. When L. D. Thatcher, law enforcement agent for the Bureau of Land Management, calls on his old friend Leaphorn to help him investigate the theft of artifacts from an Anasazi site, he is motivated by two factors: Leaphorn is a detective whose powers of analysis have made him a local legend, and he is also a friend who is suffering from the apathy of deep grief over the death of his beloved wife, Emma. His mind seems to be inert; he has become uninterested in his work and his life. When it turns out that the suspected thief is Friedman-Bernal, a respected archaeologist, Leaphorn finds himself wondering why someone whose life has been devoted to the preservation of archaeological sites would become “a thief of time,” a looter of ruins and a trafficker in stolen artifacts. Moreover, Friedman-Bernal has been missing for more than a week. Leaphorn soon finds himself confronted with a puzzle of seemingly random events. The puzzle begins to tickle Leaphorn’s analytical mind, his Navajo mind that knows that all things are linked, that there are no effects without causes, that even the wing of the corn beetle alters the...

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Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bakerman, Jane S. “Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.” In Cops and Constables: American and British Fictional Policemen, edited by Earl F. Bargainnier and George N. Dove. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986. Shows how Hillerman’s novels address the realistic complications peculiar to fictional law-enforcement officers in a vast setting where jurisdictions overlap. Considers how Leaphorn and Chee maintain independence, resourcefulness, and a sense of justice in a cynical milieu of crime and violence. Focuses on the way ethnicity informs characterization.

Engel, Leonard. “Landscape and Place in Tony Hillerman’s Mysteries.” Western American Literature 28 (Summer, 1993): 111-122. Insightful analysis of Leaphorn’s search for pattern in crime as a way of reestablishing his relationship to the Earth. Landscape imagery and sense of place are seen as at the core of Hillerman’s narrative method.

Erisman, Fred. Tony Hillerman. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1989. Extensive treatment of Hillerman’s work. Useful consideration of the theme of time— personal, professional, and cultural—in A Thief of Time, the “most regionally and humanly evocative of all the Navajo police stories.”

Greenberg, Martin, ed. The Tony Hillerman Companion:...

(The entire section is 428 words.)