Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Skeleton Man by Tony Hillerman: Skeleton Plot?

After one of those evenings when I "couldn't put it down," reading Tony Hillerman's SKELETON MAN to its conclusion, there was a part of my mind that was involved not in the story, but in noticing how Hillerman put it together. This is the part of my mind that has always wanted to write a thrilling detective novel, and it's learning how little it takes.

Tony Hillerman's detective novels do their job, and more. Besides following detectives who are following a criminal, interesting us in seeing sympathetic characters get through all right (and bad ones get their due), Hillerman also gives us what he knows of life among modern-day Navajo and Hopi people. He has a loyal fan base, respect from his peers in the business, and a PBS series based on his early novels.

The plot of Skeleton Man is simplicity itself: everyone suddenly has a reason to find a cache of diamonds lost in the Grand Canyon. The title refers both to an ambiguous Hopi god who taught his people "not to fear death," and to a hermit who resides near a spot associated with that god. Naturally, in the last chapters, all the characters converge at that spot.

There's the premise. The first chapters show us the different characters, and we hear the same story again and again about the lost diamonds and that hermit who may possess them, as each character discovers an urgent reason to locate that hermit. The middle chapters show us the characters' paths crossing as they come closer to arranging their different routes to the hermit's hideaway. This sounds more intricate than it is, as each character naturally heads to question the same source in the same general location. Finally, of course, Hillerman staggers their arrivals on the same scene, and makes sure that they coincide with a long-building storm of unusual intensity.

Each chapter reminds us of the Skeleton Man myth, and each chapter reminds us that recurring character Jim Chee and his bride-to-be have worries about their impending wedding, amounting to these questions: Will she want to live in his old trailer, close to nature? Will he learn to stop treating her the way he did when he was her boss? Each chapter tells us something about Navajo or Hopi customs -- and mostly the same things, that you don't interrupt someone else's story, that you wait to be invited in without knocking.

While this novel, like others by Hillerman, has a clear plot and all the right ingredients, it lacks one thing: texture. The mythology, the characters' pasts, the characteristics of the land, and the customs are all things that would be worked into a texture, but they're left in separate compartments. I suspect that they are accessories to the story, added to each chapter to fill out the skeleton plot. Otherwise, they'd all meet in the canyon and fight over the diamonds, and be done with it by page fifty, and that's not enough to make a novel.

That's a legitimate way to write detective fiction. It works for me. But it also limits the involvement we can feel when we read. I'm thinking how this compares with the Raymond Chandler novels, which are thick with texture. They draw you into a whole way of seeing the world, and that vision -- including the characters who are part of the texture -- stays with you long after you've forgotten the plot.

No comments: