December 06, 2004 12:00 PM

by Tony Hillerman

It isn’t easy writing about the same characters year after year, which is why so many murder-mystery series eventually become deadly dull. But Tony Hillerman, 79, is still wringing fresh life from his recurring characters Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. They are Navajo Tribal Police on the reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

In Hillerman’s 19th Leaphorn-Chee novel, the former is lured out of retirement when a relative of an old colleague is accused of stealing a diamond from a trading post. The crime seems simple enough—until it is revealed that the stolen stone came from a diamond-filled briefcase that disappeared in 1958, when the wealthy man who was carrying it died in a plane crash over the Grand Canyon. (The accident is based on a real-life disaster that resulted in the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration.) Where are the rest of the diamonds? In their search for an answer, Leaphorn and Chee become involved with an heiress, some murderous lawyers and even the Hopi Indian spirit of the dead.

Hillerman displays his trademark fusion of modern detection and Navajo mysticism, creating both a fascinating whodunit and a window into a rich culture that is foreign to many Americans. The book isn’t among the very best in Hillerman’s 34-year-old series (try Coyote Waits or A Thief of Time), but it’s a worthy addition and, by any standard, a gem.

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