BOOK REVIEW / Joe Leaphorn aims for China: 'Sacred Clowns' - Tony Hillerman: Michael Joseph, 14.99

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Frank Sayesva is in his home village of Tano Pueblo for a spirit dance; his part is as one of the Koshares, the sacred clowns, slapstick figures bursting into the ritual to 'represent humanity'. After he's performed, someone clubs him to death in his dressing room.

Seventy miles away, Eric Dorsey is a metalwork teacher in a mission school. He's a lonely, inoffensive man much loved for his ability to make people laugh, and for his many kind deeds. Someone puts a hammer through his skull. So two clowns are dead, with no reason or connection, and Officer Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn are in the mystery game again.

We're in the American Indian lands of Arizona and New Mexico, where the 'Big Rez' is the size of Ireland, but the phone book's so slim you can tuck it in your back pocket. Flitting around the fringes are environmentalists and toxic waste dumpers, drunks and shamans, lawyers, Indian traders, artefact collectors, and a whole entanglement of federal bureaucrats. As ever, in Tony Hillerman's pure and wonderful series of Navajo mysteries, the texture seems impossibly rich. How something so easy to read can contain so much is a mystery in itself. But as ever, we have Chee and Leaphorn to guide us; two of the most original and appealing characters in the history of crime fiction.

Leaphorn is the older man, strictly rational, with no belief in luck, coincidence, or old-time superstition about ghosts and 'skinwalkers'. In the Navajo Tribal Police he's something of a legend, and Chee views the prospect of working directly for him with considerable unease. In the past they've come together on cases tangentially; now Hillerman has them in the same department, and their prickly, warily respectful relationship gets its most thorough exploration yet.

Chee wants to be a hataali, a singer of the traditional curing ceremonials; his intense concern for the maintenance of the Navajo Way makes for constant conflict with his duties as a cop. So fans (addicts? lovers?) of Hillerman's ongoing project will find it no surprise that while the murder of the clowns is resolved with intricate elegance, there's at least as much suspense in the lives of the two policemen as they solve it.

The death of Leaphorn's wife Emma from cancer has cast a long pall of mourning in the background for several books now. Lost without her, Leaphorn leafs through travel brochures about China and Mongolia. When he was young he studied anthropology, and now he wonders whether he should finally take that trip to Central Asia, and go looking for the Athabaskan origins of the Navajo people. He calls a feisty academic called Louisa Bourbonette, and even gets down to some itinerary planning. But the likelihood of Leaphorn ever getting away to China seems dimmer by the day.

Chee is 'born to' the Slow Talking People on his mother's side, and 'born for' the Bitter Water People on his father's. In the complex system of kinship ties among the 60-odd clans of the Navajo people, one of the absolute taboos is against a relationship between two people connected by clan. The trouble with his lawyer friend, Janet Pete, is that, brought up in Chicago by a relocated father and a white mother, she doesn't know her clan history - so she may be off limits to Chee, which is a problem that grows more troubling the more he falls in love.

The working through of this dilemma, seamlessly woven into the larger plot, allows Hillerman to continue his precise and sensitive examination of what it is to be Navajo, and how that can fit with the white man's America. But while the landscape of the South-West looms mystically large and potent, and the vitality of Navajo myth remains as entrancing as ever, we never feel we're being lectured here. This is no romantic 'Indian lover' gush, but a meticulous, detailed portrait of ordinary people in their particular culture, veined with humour and humanity.

In one of the lighter scenes, Chee takes Janet Pete and the Cheyenne policeman Harold Blizzard to see John Ford's Cheyenne Autumn at the Gallup drive-in. Chee has to translate for Blizzard, when it turns out that most of the Indian extras playing Cheyennes in the movie are actually Navajo. When these fake Cheyennes solemnly discuss the white man's treaty offers (in Navajo), and have them solemnly translated on the soundtrack, what they're really saying is a string of ribald remarks about, for example, the size of that cavalry colonel's penis. So Blizzard watches saddened by the story of his people, while all around the Navajo audience hoot and honk at their brothers on the screen putting their private joke over the white man.

In John Williams' invaluable primer to the American thriller, Into The Badlands, Hillerman speaks of his desire to write in this way about the Navajo as they are. In the dozen stories he's now written he's done that triumphantly, making of their battered but enduring desert culture a flesh and blood reality more accessible than any history or anthropology could ever be.

It's a unique achievement. As a genre, the American thriller has always been a calendar of the times, and as the times grow more violent and disturbed, so do the books. The Florida writers Carl Hiaasen and James Hall have been much in vogue lately, with their psychedelic brutality, their wildly black humour - the severed head spinning in the washing machine, or the villain who loses his hand to a barracuda. But what Hillerman's been up to in the South-West will, I think, endure very much longer. These are tales of classic restraint, ingeniously plotted, beautifully written, marvellously rewarding; the man is a master.

And as to whether Joe Leaphorn does make it to China - you don't expect me to tell you, do you?

(Photograph omitted)