Panning a Hillerman novel is something akin to talking ugly about your favorite uncle. In the beginning of his career, Hillerman introduced readers to a wonderful cast of characters who inhabited a setting that was new and interesting. Most of the cast is the same in The Wailing Wind, and the story takes place in and around the beautiful Navaho land that spans part of New Mexico and Arizona. What is missing is the depth and craft that made
his earlier works decent reads.
When Officer Bernie Manuelito discovers a dead body in the truck that had been reported abandoned in a gulch near the southern edge of the reservation, she can find no bullet holes or other wounds to suggest foul play, so she figures the man died of natural causes. While waiting for an ambulance to arrive to pick up the body, she contaminates the scene by picking up seeds and putting them in a tobacco can she finds near the truck. Even for a rookie Ė she is a recent addition to the Tribal Force Ė that seems an unbelievable breech of professional conduct for a law-enforcement officer whoís received even a modicum of training.
Once the death is determined a homicide, the FBI is drawn into it, but itís never clear why. Their involvement does create an interesting dilemma for Sergeant Jim Chee, who would like to protect Bernie from the full federal wrath after she brings the tobacco tin to him and explains where she got it.
This current murder is quickly tied to an older case when references to a lost gold mine, The Golden Calf, are discovered among the dead manís belongings. This brings Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn out of a retirement he wasnít sure he was enjoying anyway. He had handled the former murder case, which had left one significant loose thread. What had happened to Linda Denton, wife of Wiley Denton who had confessed to killing Marvin McKay because the man was trying to swindle him with false maps to the gold mine? Claiming it was self-defense; Denton had worked out a plea bargain and ended up serving only part of a year in prison. His wife had never been seen again.
Itís that mystery that plagues Leaphorn as he assists Chee and Manuelito in the investigation of the current murder. When Wiley Denton wants to hire him to find his wife, Leaphorn will agree only if Wiley can tell him he isnít lying when he says he didnít kill her as some suspect. This scene evokes the strongest emotion as Denton describes how a young, beautiful woman could have fallen in love with him, ďMe being way too old and ugly. And she saidÖ.it was because of what Iíd done. How I lived.Ē
Leaphorn can relate to that kind of love that defies reason. Thatís what he had with his wife, Emma.
While the book has holes in the plot and rather implausible behavior by some of the officers, it does have moments of charm in the relationship between Chee and Manuelito as it tries to become more than professional. Leaphorn, too, has another woman in his life since his beloved Emma died, and Louise is an endearing character. A bit of classic Hillerman is also present in the details of Native-American culture and the vivid descriptions of the rugged countryside.