August 27, 1990 12:00 PM

by Tony Hillerman

The gun that kills Tribal Policeman Delbert Nez at the start of Tony Hillerman’s latest (and characteristically satisfying) novel presents no mystery. Officer Jim Chee finds it in the belt of an ancient Navaho shaman who is walking away in a drunken daze from the patrol car where Nez lies dead. Chee, wracked with guilt because his inattention contributed to Nez’s death, is convinced that he need look no further for his killer.

Then Lt. Joe Leaphorn, Hillerman’s other Navaho cop hero, backs into the case, strictly unofficially, as a favor to a distant clan connection. Working independently, Leaphorn and Chee start to find complications in what had seemed a watertight case. There’s a mysterious Vietnamese teacher with a reputation for having done hard things during the war. There’s witchcraft. The FBI is involved. Biligaana (Caucasian) academics seem too interested in the case, and the ghost of Butch Cassidy—yes, Butch Cassidy—hovers over the action. The title’s coyote is Coyote of Navaho myth, who represents chaos, and who lurks just at the fringes of all of man’s doings.

Leaphorn and Chee have appeared in Hillerman’s last three novels. Together, they’re a study in contrasting styles. Chee is young and still idealistic, and doesn’t always obey the rules. He also believes in the old ways of his people, even hoping to become a shaman himself. Leaphorn is battle-scarred and worldly-wise and quietly skeptical about everything.

Hillerman’s elevation into the best-seller ranks is a great justice of American popular writing. While his novels are mysteries, they are also exquisite explorations of human nature—with a great backdrop. Set among Native Americans, they are quintessentially American. (Harper & Row, $19.95)

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