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Jim Chee And Joe Leaphorn Join Forces As A Killer Disease Stalks The Rez.

By Tom Danehy

The First Eagle, by Tony Hillerman (HarperCollins). Cloth, $25.
Serpent Gate, by Michael McGarrity (Scribner). Cloth, $23.

AUGUST 31, 1998:  IT'S ALMOST embarrassing, the reaction one has when he sees there's a new Tony Hillerman book on the shelf. It probably would be embarrassing were it not for the fact that so many other people are having the same reaction. Hillerman is a Southwestern (and national) treasure, and a new Leaphorn-Chee book is as welcome as that first cool day in October.

The First Eagle is the 13th book in the series chronicling the all-too-imperfect lives of Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The early books focused on one or the other. By the middle of the series, the two were working together. Now, with Leaphorn retired from the force and Chee occupying the legend's former position, Hillerman has to find a way to bring the two together.

He does so nicely here with Chee working on the case of a young Hopi man whom Chee himself found standing over the body of a murdered Navajo cop, and Leaphorn working as a private investigator searching for a microbiologist who disappeared somewhere on the sprawling, 24,000 square mile Navajo Reservation.

The two cases converge, but in an unforced, surprisingly convincing way. It's almost as though the world goes out of its way to prove Joe Leaphorn's philosophy of never believing in coincidences.

Biologist Catherine Pollard is a "flea-catcher," one who tracks down desert rodents, removes their fleas, then uses them to track the spread of a deadly plague which is killing people in the Four Corners area.

Just by...well, coincidence, she left Tuba City headed for the same remote location where Chee caught his Hopi cop-killer.

Compounding the problem is the re-entry into Jim Chee's life of his former fiancée, the beautiful, tough-as-nails Janet Pete. She's back on the Reservation, and she's defending the man Chee thinks he caught literally red-handed.

In the previous book, The Fallen Man, the half-Navajo Pete, who enjoys the power and glitz of Washington, D.C., had broken off the engagement when she learned that Chee wanted to stay in the Four Corners. Well, she's back, but the two can't keep from butting heads.

Hillerman is just plain mean and rotten to his main characters when it comes to love. Early on in the series, he killed off Leaphorn's beloved wife, Emma, with a brain tumor. And now with the headstrong Janet Pete, poor Jim Chee is (in the immortal words of Richard Pryor) "in love with a woman he can't stand."

When the two men's cases converge, they find themselves entering a creepy world where a killer disease is moving through the population, apparently growing stronger as it does so. Hillerman is obviously fired up about this subject, but his attempts to hammer his points home leave us sometimes tired. We want less microbiology and more loving descriptions of Big Mesa sunsets and late-summer thunderstorms.

This is not the best book in the series. It lacks the historical wonder of A Thief of Time or the raw passion of The Dark Wind. Still, it's a satisfying enough mystery and an all-too-infrequent visit from two old friends.


NOW IT'S BEEN said (mostly by me) that every blessing carries with it a curse. Hillerman's gift to us was his loving invention of an entirely new genre--the Southwestern murder mystery. But if, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Hillerman has been flattered about half to death.

It seems like every month there comes a new pretender. There's the one about the woman psychologist who works in the New Mexico prison system, or the one on the Navajo woman medical examiner, or the Tucson-based PI.

The most recent entry in the Be Like Tony Sweepstakes is Serpent Gate, by Michael McGarrity. His hero is Kevin Kerney, deputy chief of the New Mexico State Police. Kerney has won a few medals and taken a couple bullets, leaving him honored but also broken down. He limps around, forced to use his brain where once he'd used his body.

Kerney faces two tough cases. He must find the killer of a small-town cop while at the same time solving the baffling mystery of who cleaned out the Governor's office of several million dollars' worth of artwork.

Along the way he becomes the ardent defender of the prime suspect in the murder case, and meets up with an old arch-foe, a Mexican millionaire who kills for fun and never gets caught.

McGarrity moves the action along at a nice pace. The book does bog down a bit when he tries to paint the Santa Fe art scene as a sort of New Mexican Garden of Good & Evil. Hey, most of us have been to Santa Fe. We already know.

This is more an inconsequential book than a bad one. It reads like McGarrity wants to be Elmore Leonard and Tony Hillerman, but he approaches neither. It makes for a nice cross-country airplane read, but it's not up to the standard of The Master.


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