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‘Listening Woman’ worth another read

Where we came from is a topic that seems to interest most of us — a group that would certainly include the late Tony Hillerman, whose fascination with American Indians (especially the Navajo) educated and enlightened millions of readers during a long career.

Over the course of more than 35 years Hillerman wrote dozens of books, the most beloved of which are the 18 in his series featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. Fans of the series can follow along as Leaphorn gradually ages and then retires, and protege Chee follows in the footsteps of Leaphorn’s career. These are murder mysteries, but murder mysteries that also explore the intricacies of Navajo life — physical, mental and spiritual — and the geography that shaped it.

“Listening Woman” is the third of the series, originally published in 1978, and to read it again is to be reminded of Leaphorn in his glory days. As the book opens Leaphorn pulls over a speeding motorist and the man nearly kills him, grinning as he tries to run the policeman down.

Leaphorn is intent on finding the man he thinks of as “Gold Rims” (for his gold-rimmed glasses), not only because he wants to bring him to justice but because the attempt on his life offends Leaphorn’s sense of order; it simply defies all logic. But there are other cases that his superior officer finds more pressing, and he wants Leaphorn to work on those first.

There are, it would appear, lots of unconnected elements as “Listening Woman” progresses. But regular readers of Hillerman won’t be surprised to learn that they all are woven together like a fine Navajo rug. Since we know Leaphorn lives to a ripe old retirement age there isn’t as much suspense as he endures a multiday ordeal to save not only his own life but the lives of numerous others, but the methods that are employed keep things exciting.

I “read” this as an audiobook, and it’s with that treatment that I have my only quibble. The book was narrated by Hillerman regular George Guidall, the grandeur of whose voice is generally a fine match for the grandeur of the scenery painted by Hillerman’s words. But in this book the author has Leaphorn grimacing a lot, usually in the past tense (for whatever reason, on both counts). Inexplicably, Guidall repeatedly pronounced the word “grim-ACED,” the pronunciation bringing to mind a poker card. And every time he did, I found that I had grimaced. Or maybe cringed.

So maybe you shouldn’t listen to “Listening Woman.” But I’d definitely recommend reading it.


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