The Fallen Man
By Tony Hillerman
HarperCollins; 304 pages; $24

After a brief sojourn to Southeast Asia in last year's "Finding Moon," Tony Hillerman returns to the American Southwest and continues the adventures of his two most popular characters, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.

As "The Fallen Man" opens, ex-cop Joe Leaphorn is finding himself at loose ends. Hillerman writer, "Most of the things he'd yearned to do when retirement allowed it had now been done -- at least once. He was bored. He was lonely. The little house he and Emma had shared so many years had never recovered from the emptiness her death had left in every room. That was worse now without the job to distract him."

The discovery of a climber's decade-old skeleton on Ship Rock, nearly 1,700 feet above the desert floor, gives Leaphorn something new to think about. He suspects the body may be connected to a case he investigated eleven years ago, in which a mining heir named Harold Breedlove disappeared without a trace during his honeymoon.

When someone shoots the old guide who was one of the last people to see Breedlove alive, Leaphorn wonders whether Breedlove might have met a slow, agonizing and not at all accidental death atop Ship Rock. The timing of his death proves especially crucial, because Breedlove stood to inherit a sizeable mining fortune upon his thirtieth birthday.

Meanwhile, Leaphorn's former colleague, Jim Chee, has his hands full while serving as the Acting Lieutenant of the Navajo Tribal Police. A series of cattle thefts has him baffled and frustrated. Dealing with a rookie female officer who's smarter than everyone thinks and a know-it-all cattle-brand inspector doesn't make things any easier.

When Leaphorn first brings him his theories about the corpse atop Ship Rock, Chee's instinct is to step aside and let his old boss run with the case. Gradually, however, he realizes that his own fiancee, attorney Janet Pete, is still closely involved with Hal McDermott, the trustee for Breedlove's estate. McDermott is Pete's former lover, and after he hires Leaphorn to investigate the Breedlove case, Chee worries that he is now being manipulated by a romantic rival.

Leaphorn and Chee separately unearth various clues that hint at a conspiracy involving either Breedlove's widow or the men who want to invalidate her inheritance. But before the riddle is solved, another man dies and Chee comes close to being killed himself.

Hillerman, author of "Talking God" and "Coyote Waits," knows what his readers want: evocative descriptions of the desert, a glimpse into the rhythms of daily Navajo life, and an intriguing, yet not too convoluted, mystery. "The Fallen Man" serves all that up in fine style. The cattle-rustling subplot serves as a midly entertaining diversion from the main action, but it offers few surprises. However, the search for the truth about Breedlove, the "fallen man" who was given everything but never found happiness, proves completely compelling and takes some unexpected twists.

What's most impressive about "TheFallen Man" is the ways in which Hillerman finds new roles for his long-established characters. Both Leaphorn and Chee stand at a crossroads at the end of this book, their personal and professional lives pointed in different directions.

The old rules that governed this series of mysteries may no longer hold, and that's a good thing. "The Fallen Man" leaves the reader satisfied, yet eager for the next installment.

(c) 1996 by Michael Berry


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