Anne Hillerman’s new book, “Stargazer,” is the sixth in her series that continues the stories created by her father, Tony Hillerman. The book is billed as “A Leaphorn, Chee & Manuelito Novel.” Although her work builds on characters initiated by her father, she has lovingly made them her own, especially Bernadette Manuelito.
Bernadette, known as Bernie, has come to symbolize the trials and tribulations of being both a woman in a traditional male occupation and the special expectations placed on a woman of the Diné Nation. Bernie was introduced by Tony Hillerman as a rookie member of the Navajo Police department in 1996’s “The Fallen Man.” Much has changed for Bernie since then.
In “Stargazer,” Bernie comes to the forefront of the action. She is now a respected member of the force and is stationed out of the Shiprock substation. Bernie is also a wife, married to longtime Hillerman character, Jim Chee. They have a strong relationship, but in “Stargazer,” it is tested by the fact that Jim is the temporary substation supervisor while Capt. Largo is out of the office.
The third main character is retired Lt. Joe Leaphorn, who is currently a private investigator and police consultant. He becomes a sounding board for both Jim and Bernie during this story. Joe is also struggling with a personal decision that may affect his relationship with his housemate Louisa, an anthropology professor.
“Stargazer” opens in October, one of the most beautiful times on the Navajo Nation, with the discovery of a dead man found near the Alamo Navajo reservation. This little-known part of the Navajo Nation is located north and west of Socorro, New Mexico, and is remote with few residents. The dead belagaana, a white person, was found in a fancy Jaguar and apparently worked on research at the Very Large Array facility, located west of Socorro.
Socorro County detective Tara Williams is dealing with her first suspicious death and reaches out to Bernie. Just before Tara’s call, Bernie had been contacted by a friend concerned about his sister Maya, who didn’t show up for a family event. Maya Kelsey was Bernie’s college roommate and onetime friend. When Bernie realizes a connection between Maya and the dead man, she is eager to be involved. Although suicide is suspected, Bernie is beyond shocked when someone she least suspects walks into the department and confesses to the death of the man.
Although it seems like an open-and-shut case, Bernie is not convinced about what really happened. As she continues her investigation, issues and complications arise. On a personal note, Bernie is worried because her aging mother’s behavior is concerning. Bernie has had years of dealing with her younger sister Darlene’s irrational escapades, but this is new territory for her.
On the other hand, Darlene is doing well, living and working in Chinle. This means Bernie’s mom is now living alone.
At work, Bernie deals with the sticky situation of working under Jim, which is uncomfortable because their personal relationship has them on equal footing. Bernie also cannot understand why the person who confessed to the murder would do so, and she is convinced it is a lie. She continues her investigation, and questions co-workers of the dead man. Her visits to the VLA give readers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the radio astronomy observatory.
Anne Hillerman’s main characters are growing and evolving into even more complex and intriguing people. She places them in a lightly populated part of the country that is unlike any other. She treats the Diné (Navajo) culture with respect and sure knowledge, allowing readers to learn about one of the longest inhabitants of the continent. She has also featured the timely and growing concern about the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Hillerman has crafted an intriguing mystery and layered it with the difficulty faced by Diné women who are breaking barriers and going beyond traditional roles. Her first novel, “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” published in 2013, garnered several awards. “Stargazer” should also bring her more awards. “Stargazer” is a welcome addition to the series.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.
Anne Hillerman – “Stargazer: A Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito Novel.”
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