In Other Words Song of the Lion by Anne Hillerman
Officer Bernadette Manuelito is off duty, enjoying a basketball game at Shiprock High School, when a car explodes in the parking lot. A body is found in the wreckage, and suddenly the night turns from one of relaxation and community bonding into one of fear and tragedy. Manuelito springs into crowd-control action in Anne Hillerman’s Song of the Lion, the author’s third novel to continue her father Tony Hillerman’s bestselling mystery series set among the Navajo people in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.
At the time of the explosion, the Shiprock Chieftains had been competing against an assortment of alumni all-stars — one of whom, Aza Palmer, owns the expensive car that blew up with a person inside it. Though that man’s identity is unknown, law enforcement suspects Palmer was targeted because of his job as a mediator; he is currently involved in contentious negotiations over the potential development of a luxury resort near the Grand Canyon. Since Palmer could be the target of numerous opposing factions, Manuelito’s husband, Sgt. Jim Chee, is assigned to accompany him to a big meeting in Tuba City, Arizona, for his own safety. Chee is not thrilled with having pulled bodyguard duty. Manuelito drives out to join him when she is given a few days off after working the crime scene at the high school, but her mind never strays far from her own work. As husband and wife’s respective cases intersect and grow more complicated, they eventually turn to the wisdom of the nowretired Lt. Joe Leaphorn, who suffers impaired communication skills due to a brain injury from being shot in Hillerman’s debut novel, Spider Woman’s
Daughter (Harper, 2013). For longtime fans of Tony Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, Song of the Lion is as reliably intriguing and heartfelt as previous books. Numerous references to past cases will deepen the narrative by allowing loyal readers to tap their stored knowledge, but such background is not crucial to enjoyment. New readers can count on an emphasis on Navajo culture with an understanding of interpersonal dynamics that means the difference between solving cases and hitting dead ends in Indian Country. Navajo family values are front and center, as the important roles of grandparents, aunts, and uncles are not only explained for the reader but made vital to the structure of the story. We spend time with Manuelito’s mother and sister, the former of whom is a skilled weaver now teaching the craft to others, and the latter of whom is getting past a troubled early adulthood and taking college classes.
Hillerman touches on a number of contemporary social issues in Song of the Lion, including antipolice bias, protest culture, conservation, Native sovereignty, and corporate exploitation, as well as some that hit closer to home, namely the ways in which addiction fractures families. There is a tender studiousness to Manuelito that sets her apart from many female leads of recent Southwestern mystery novels; she is not a hard-bitten cynic or a damaged hothead, plowing gut-first into random local crimes, consequences be damned, but rather a trained police officer who is proud of her career. Her relationship with Chee is one of equals, a model of respect that illustrates the essential kindness of the story. Though the novel makes a clear delineation between right and wrong, no one is painted as beyond redemption. — Jennifer Levin
Anne Hillerman reads from “Song of the Lion” at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226) on Tuesday, April 11, at 6 p.m. The book is on sale April 11.