The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman (2006) French title: Le chagrin entre les fils. Translated by Pierre Bondil.

Hillerman_chagrin_filsTo be honest, I still have three books to review by the end of 2015 and out of the three, Hillerman’s book is the least appealing. This explains why my billet will be a short one.

Tony Hillerman (1925-2008) is an American writer of detective novels whose main characters are policemen from the Navajo Tribal Police Department, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. His books are set in the Four Corners area, between Arizona and Utah.

In The Shape Shifter, Joe Leaphorn is now retired while Jim Chee has just gotten married and is back from his honeymoon. Leaphorn is a little bored, so when an old friend calls him about a Navajo blanket that had reappeared when everybody thought it had been destroyed in an arson, he jumps on the occasion to investigate further. Only it will be on his free time and without police backup.

It had been a long time since my last Tony Hillerman. His books are usually a pleasure to read because of the investigation but also because of all the information he gives about the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo cultures. This element is present in this opus as well. The blanket relates the Long Walk of the Navajo in 1864 when they were deported from Arizona to New Mexico.

Hillerman gives details about The Long Walk and its impact on the Navajo psyche. However, I failed to understand how it was serving the plot. It was interesting to read about but I thought it never quite meshed with the plot. It felt more like a pretext than a real plot enhancer.

I also thought that the plot was a little weak and it sounded to me that the writer was as tired as his character. It didn’t help that I wasn’t in awe with the translation; I don’t like recent books with notes explaining what a pick-up is. And let’s talk about the French title. It’s not the translation of the original title, which I understand because it’s hard to translate. However, the French title, Le chagrin entre les fils, is unfortunate because the word fils, when you read it, can be understood as threads or as sons. Until I heard about the blanket after I started to read the book, I was convinced the title meant the grief between the sons and not the grief between the threads. The title makes sense as the blanket was made to keep a trail of this painful Long Walk and to express grief in an artistic form. But how can you guess that when you’re in the bookshop?

Despite the reservations I have on this volume of the series, I still highly recommend Tony Hillerman as a writer to explore. Just pick his earlier books and if you have any interest at all in Native American culture, this is an enjoyable way to learn things. For example, in The Shape Shifter, he explains that in the Navajo culture, being called rich is not desirable at all, it’s almost an insult. What a clash with the culture of the white America. Hillerman was an honorary citizen of the Navajo reservation, so you can trust his explanations. He also has a fantastic sense of place. He has a way to describe nature in the Four Corners area that makes you want to pay a visit. Reading it after a trip there is even better because you have your own images of the places he describes.

  1. December 23, 2015 at 11:53 pm

    This is the only Hillerman that I haven’t yet read. I guess I was saving it, since by the time I got the paperback I already knew that he had died. I thoroughly enjoyed most of the books, only a couple that I recall not liking as much. I got used to Leaphorn in the beginning and it took me a while to warm up to Chee, so that could have something to do with it.

    They were always a special treat because I lived in Arizona for twenty years and was relatively close to the Four Corners area. Every time I went on a trip east and passed through the area, my eyes were wide and searching for landmarks.

    I recently found out that Hillerman’s daughter Anne is continuing the series and already has at least two books out. So, I’ll be reading this last one as soon as I can find the time.


    • December 24, 2015 at 11:27 am

      I understand about saving books from favorite authors. I have a few unread Romain Garys for the same reason.

      When I went to Arizona and New Mexico last year, I kept thinking about his books too. So I can only relate to your looking around for landmarks. Reading The Shape Shifter after seen the place is better, of course.
      I’ve heard about his daughter’s continuing his work. I’m not sure I want to read these. It sounds like a franchise to me and the idea that a writer’s voice is not unique bothers me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 24, 2015 at 9:22 am

    I’m not familiar with this author, but he sounds worthy of consideration…not this book, but maybe one of his others. It’s a pity this novel didn’t hit the mark – you’ve articulated your reservations very clearly.


    • December 24, 2015 at 10:53 am

      He’s usually excellent, Jacqui. He’s very informative about Navajo, Hopi and Zuni cultures. It’s fascinating to read, really.
      He’s quite popular in France, according to his Wikipédia page.


  3. December 24, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    I went through a Hillerman period and read everything of his I could find at the local library – that’s my anthropological interest coming to the fore again! Sorry to hear this one was a bit disappointing. It does sometimes feel like writers are getting a bit bored with their characters, aren’t they?


    • December 24, 2015 at 3:44 pm

      Yes, that’s exactly the feeling.
      It is an excellent series, though.


  4. Pat
    December 26, 2015 at 1:57 am

    L’adaptateur de forme, ou Profile variable, pourquoi pas La silhouette changeante


    • December 26, 2015 at 7:59 am

      Je dirais plutôt L’homme-qui-changeait-de-forme. Adaptateur fait trop matériel (prise électrique pour voyager) et silhouette est trop superficiel. L’idée ici est une transformation plus complète.


  5. December 29, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    So was this one of his last novels? It does sound like he had the research and topic to explore, but not a plot that naturally brought out those materials. Still, I recall your discussing him before and he does generally sound interesting. Perhaps once I’ve made some progress in some of the series I seem presently to have on semi-perpetual hold…


    • December 29, 2015 at 9:13 pm

      Yes, it was one of his last novels.
      I thought you had already read books by him. Try him, especially after your trip in the USA. It’s very nice to read his description and his feel of the place.
      I’ve abandoned the idea of finishing every series I start, otherwise, I’d never try new ones and I’d be missing things.


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