Tony Hillerman - The Shape Shifter

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Tony Hillerman, The Shape Shifter: ..and Another Navajo Mystery Solved

Jun 21, 2012 (Updated Aug 20, 2012)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Well plotted and a fun mystery to uncover. Leaphorn at Hillerman's BEST!

Cons:It's the last Leaphorn book ; (

The Bottom Line: Though this may be the last of the Hillerman Tribal Police murder mysteries, it kept to the high rankings of all the books of his I have read to date.


I have now read eight Tony Hillerman books since returning from 10 spring days of discovery in Arizona. I spent half my time in Navajo lands in the northeastern corner of the state. It's there that by chance when in a Navajo museum my wife and I were introduced to Tony Hillerman's daughter, Anne Hillerman,  who, aside from her own writing, now leads Tony Hillerman tours. These tours explore places where these Tony Hillerman novels take place and from what I understand also meet people who in one way or another involved in the stories.

At first I started reading his books in order by purchasing them through Amazon sent directly to my Kindle. Now however, some $30 poorer my wife picked up some four or five additional Hillerman books from the library. Unfortunately I cannot read them all in order this way but at least I am getting my Navajo mystery novel fix.

Tony Hillerman - The Shape Shifter

Once again Lt. Joe Leaphorn gets into solving a case in the Four Corners region of the American southwest. He's been retired but his inquisitive mind keeps him in the game even if not officially. This time he receives an envelope from a Tribal Policeman, retired that he knew from years back. In the envelope is the photograph of a Navajo rug. It depicts troubled times of the Navajo Long Walk that needlessly killed men woman and children when the US government in the 1800s was moving them from place to place. 

What makes the image special is that it looks just like a Navajo rug that was burned in a trading post fire in 1965 along with a man noted as #1 on the FBI Most Wanted list.  Leaphorn knows of the case and in fact remembers all so well including the complaints of grandma Peshlakai a Navajo who had two of her pots of pinyon sap stolen that very same day. This comes into play in a humorous way and factual to the case.

Though Leaphorn was not on site he did get information from those Navajo that were there. It was the FBI that declared their man was dead.

In the present time someone is killing people that are asking questions about the long closed case. There are other released from prison that may have been in cahoots with the dead man and still looking for stolen loot. The plot thickens and  Lt. Joe Leaphorn  gets into trouble snooping around in this case where he needs to know if indeed the real Navajo rug was burned and what about that body in the fire where the FBI declared the case closed?

Though retired,  Lt. Joe Leaphorn uses his intellect and Navajo skills to shed new light on an old case.  

pops Take

As usual Hillerman takes a case and has Leaphorn work it methodically. We kinda know where the photo of the rug was going to take us and also shedding light on the, burned to a crisp, Most Wanted body but Leaphorn has a way of keeping this reader VERY interested. 

Once again it was a joy to follow Leahorn as Hillerman continues to teach the reader about the Navajo Way and give us the beauty of the deserts canyons and mountains as a backdrop.

There was also humor in his choice of elements that brought mystery to the story including fruit cake. Ha, it seemed so out of place yet added a smile and another layer of mystery to uncover. Hillerman does that. He makes the mystery both serious in matter yet, at times, light hearted in delivery..   

I also have to say that it was my recent trip meeting Navajo and talking with them often. A visit to a National Historic site, a trading post, in the Navajo lands  that had a room filled with Navajo rugs intrigued me and gave me a focal point I could see even more clearly than my imagination would. I also enjoyed driving through the very lands and on roads that Leaphorn is described to be on while on his ventures.

There was something of a kinship that I had with Leaphorn. I love driving and his matter of fact rides of five hours to get from one place to the next daily is something I would and do enjoy. My dad was a cop and Leaphorn did have a paternal identity for me to easily follow and understand. I'm already missing Leaphorn.

pops Out On A Limb 

I may be going out on a limb here and delving deeper than I perhaps should without the knowledge I should have...but anyways...

This book from what I can see is the last of the Hillerman's 18 or so Navajo Tribal Police mysteries spanning from the 1960s till 2006. I have read eight to date. From studying time lines, Hillerman died two years after this book was released. I read his first three and those lead with the legendary Lt. Joe Leaphorn as the lone protagonist. The author later added Sgt. Jim Chee a younger man with not quite the smarts to dissect a crime step by step but was an eager man who was also well versed in the Navajo Way and dedicated to his job. There were some books with Chee alone and others where Leaphorn stepped in with Chee to solve cases. Many times they worked the same case but from different angles. I liked that.

As I read in the last week or so what are three of his last four books I saw Chee in a romance with a young officer Bernadette "Bernie" Manuelito. It seemed to me that Hillerman was tieing up loose ends with characters and saying goodbye. They were married just before this story started. I don't know if Hillerman was sick for a while or if his death was sudden (I will have to search that out) but Shape Shifter was the swan song for Leaphorn in that it was his last case we could ever read. There were word exchanges at the end of chapters that felt like "goodbyes." I had to laugh ad almost cry reading Leaphorns last words, "Well, I finally got the job done." to that is a humorous answer from a character who knew him for many, many years, though said with sincerity. "Well, young man, it sure took you long enough." 

It took me too long to discover Hillerman and his characters. I have some ten books more to read, I have been at the beginning and at the end. I know I will enjoy all that is between the two.


Tony Hillerman - The Blessing Way
Tony Hillerman - Dance Hall of the Dead
Tony Hillerman - Listening Woman
Tony Hillerman - Talking God
Tony Hillerman - Hunting Badger
Tony Hillerman - The Wailing Wind
Tony Hillerman - The Sinister Pig
Tony Hillerman - The Skeleton Man 
Tony Hillerman - The Shape Shifter


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