The Crime Fiction Alphabet has moved on to the twelfth of our not-so-restful rest stops on this dangerous journey. Thanks as ever to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for keeping us all together and safe… well, up to this point anyway. We’re all settling in here at the letter L, unpacking and making ‘phone calls, so this is a good time to share my contribution for this stop: Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn.
Leaphorn is a member of the Navajo Nation and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, now known as the Navajo Nation Police. Leaphorn was mostly raised and educated at assimilationist schools including, as we learn in Dance Hall of the Dead,
“A Bureau of Indian Affairs high school that had a sign in the hall. It said, ‘Tradition is the Enemy of Progress.’ The word was, give up the old ways or die.”
With that background, it’s easy to see why Leaphorn isn’t deeply versed in the traditional ways of life and world views of his people. He’s had to adopt a more Westernised way of thinking. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know anything about his people or their traditions, nor does it mean he has no respect for the Navajo Way. In some ways though, Leaphorn is a bit of an outsider in his own community although he’s accepted by his people as “one of us.”
That balance – between a respect for and understanding of his people and a viewpoint that’s become somewhat Westernised – makes Leaphorn a very interesting character. We can see how his understanding of the Navajo Way is helpful as Leaphorn investigates crime among that group of people. For instance, in Coyote Waits, he is persuaded to look into the arrest of Ashie Pinto, who may have been “railroaded” into being charged with the murder of Navajo Tribal Police Officer Delbert Nez. Of course Leaphorn doesn’t want an innocent man imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. But Leaphorn also has another reason for taking another look at this case. Pinto is a distant relation of Leaphorn’s beloved wife Emma (more on her shortly) and Leaphorn feels the pull of kinship ties, which are an integral part of Navajo life.
Because of Leaphorn’s more Westernised view of life, he can be somewhat objective about the Navajo Way. We see that for instance in Skinwalkers. That’s the story of a set of murders all having to do with the Bad Water Clinic, which integrates both Western medicine and Navajo healing traditions in its approach to health care. Some forensics clues suggest that these murders had to do with Navajo witchcraft. That suspicion is supported by an attack on fellow Navajo Tribal Police officer and yata’ali (Navajo healer) Jim Chee. Leaphorn is not a believer in Navajo witchcraft, but he does respect the fact that many other people are, and that that belief could be the reason for these murders. So Leaphorn works with Chee to find out what’s behind the murders and the attack on Chee.
Leaphorn is an intuitive and dedicated cop, and that’s an appealing aspect of his character. He knows the land well and that knowledge is very helpful in his investigations. One of his trademarks is a road map of the area that he keeps on the wall of his office. He has different coloured pins on the map that mark the kinds of crimes that occur in his jurisdiction and he uses those pins to look for patterns when he’s investigating cases.
Another appealing aspect of Leaphorn’s character is that he is not the stereotypical loner cop with too many personal demons and too much love of alcohol. In the earlier novels that feature him, Leaphorn is married to the love of his life Emma. It’s obvious that he respects and loves her very much. Emma, who is also a member of the Navajo Nation, is more traditional in her beliefs and way of life than her husband is but Leaphorn respects her for it. Here’s what he says about Emma in Skinwalkers:
“He was watching the dust storm moving down the valley with its outrider of whirlwinds. One of them had crossed a gypsum sink, and its winds had sucked up that heavier mineral. The cone changed from the yellow-gray of the dusty earth to almost pure white. It was the sort of thing Emma would have noticed, and found beauty in, and related in some way or another to the mythology of The People. Emma would have said something about the Blue Flint Boys playing their games.”
When Emma dies, Leaphorn is truly devastated and Hillerman does not minimise that loss. But Leaphorn picks up his personal pieces and moves on although his memories of Emma remain an important part of his life. When he meets Anthropology Professor Louisa Bourbonette in Coyote Waits, Leaphorn is most definitely not looking for another romantic relationship. As the two of them get to know one another, their relationship develops quite naturally and not without its tense moments. Leaphorn’s got a believable and normal (if there is such a thing) home life and although it’s not a major part of the plots of Hillerman’s novels, it makes Leaphorn more human.
Leaphorn’s character develops and evolves over the course of the series and that, too, is appealing. In Listening Woman, Dance Hall of the Dead and The Blessing Way, the first three Leaphorn novels, Leaphorn isn’t rash but he is more action-oriented than he is in later stories. As time goes by Leaphorn becomes more contemplative. He matures and learns to take a more long-headed view of cases. That process of becoming wiser adds to his authenticity as a character.
Joe Leaphorn is a complex character, the product of two ways of looking at the world, and that makes him interesting. He’s mercifully free of the personal demons that so many fictional cops battle, but he’s got enough personal baggage to make him human. He is a tenacious cop, which is part of the reason for his nickname, The Legendary Lieutenant. In fact, even after he retires from active police work he becomes a private investigator – he can’t stop being a cop. He’s reflective without ruminating and he has a deep and real understanding of the land where he works. Oh, and did I mention that he’s addicted to coffee? What’s not to like about that?