• Wendy Wanner

Book Review: Sacred Clowns by Tony Hillerman

Updated: Dec 29, 2018

Highly Recommended

A mystery that packs a punch and is still culturally relevant today

Sacred Clowns, published in 1993, is number eleven in the Joe Leaphorn / Jim Chee Navajo Police series written by the deceased Tony Hillerman. While the original Leaphorn and Chee series has eighteen books, his daughter Anne Hillerman has continued the series with books nineteen through soon-to-be-released twenty-three.

I came across Tony Hillerman’s series when researching Ancestral Pueblos and Hopi. Although most of Hillerman’s books are deeply rooted on the Navajo Rez, the Sacred Clowns novel branched out into the world of Hopi customs, including the Kachina Koshare, as well as life within a Pueblo. This book also hints at the complicated inter-relationship between different Native American groups, such as when Chee, a Navajo, is awed by the Cheyenne FBI agent whom he refers to as “an Indian’s Indian.”

Before reviewing the plot, I’d like to remark on how the times have changed, or not, since 1993. While Hillerman uses antiquated terms, such as Indian and Anasazi, his depiction of life on the Rez and the beliefs of the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo, both ceremonial and every-day, are still true today. We also see the effects of Navajo students being forced into boarding schools by the U.S. as well as the changes when that practice was discontinued in the early ’90s, and tribal education became about Navajo history, culture, and language. Also, the challenges of police investigations before the ease of smartphones and technology, when messages were left either on a desk, an answering machine, or with a secretary, and forensic evidence was primarily fingerprinting, adds an amusing angle.

Now on to the plot. The clues left and found on the way to solving the mystery of a double homicide, one of a teacher on the Navajo Reservation and one of a Koshare dancer in the Tano Pueblo, was easy to follow and consistent with Hillerman’s other books. The plot was intricate, well developed and not obvious before the reveal, and Leaphorn and Chee's dealings with the various tribal police, state police, sheriff’s offices, and FBI involved in the cross-jurisdictional cases added layers of depth.

In exploring the customs of the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo, this novel touched on taboos, such as selling tribal artifacts, as well as cultural differences in dealing with guilt, retribution, and punishment. Chee struggled with being both a hataalii (shaman) and a tribal policeman, and the different rules each role is meant to follow.

If I had to give a theme to this book, besides murder, tribal duty and honor, it would be love, as both leading characters, Leaphorn and Chee, found themselves in love with women who pushed the Navajo cultural boundaries.

I enjoyed this novel. Readers, you won’t be disappointed.