Spider Woman's Daughter cover image is courtesy of barnesandnoble.com.
Spider Woman’s Daughter is the debut novel from award-winning reporter and nonfiction book author, Anne Hillerman. Anne is the daughter of The New York Times bestselling author, the late Tony Hillerman, who is best known for his series of “Navajo Tribal Police novels” and that series’ main protagonist, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.
In Spider Woman’s Daughter, Leaphorn and Chee are back for the first time since The Shape Shifter (2006), Tony Hillerman’s final book. However, Spider Woman’s Daughter is not quite a “Leaphorn and Chee” novel (although the copy “A Leaphorn & Chee Novel” graces the cover). The book’s central character, the one through which the bulk of the narrative is told, is Navajo Nation Police Officer Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito, who is also Jim Chee’s wife.
Set in New Mexico, Spider Woman’s Daughter opens one ordinary morning at the Navajo Inn during a breakfast gathering of select Navajo Nation cops. This is how the promotional material for Spider Woman’s Daughter describes what happens during this meeting:
It happened in an instant: After a breakfast with colleagues, Navajo Nation Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito sees a sedan career into the parking lot and hears a crack of gunfire. When the dust clears, someone very close to her is lying on the asphalt in a pool of blood.
Perhaps, I am not supposed to reveal this, dear reader, but the book has been out for three months, (as I write this review). Plus, the shooting happens on page three of the story, anyway. That someone very close to Bernie is Inspector Joe Leaphorn.
With Leaphorn fighting for his life in a Sante Fe hospital, every Navajo Nation cop and also the local FBI office is determined catch the unidentified gunman. Bernie wants in on the investigation, but regulations strictly forbid an eyewitness to the shooting from being involved in the investigation. Bernie’s superior, Captain Largo, orders her to take a leave of absence from the job and to not get involved in the case. He threatens to fire her if she disobeys his direct orders.
Of course, Bernie is not going to sit this investigation out, especially when her husband, Sergeant Jim Chee, is put in charge of finding the shooter. Bernie and Chee discover that the shooting is tied to an old case upon which Leaphorn worked. This case, which could unveil the shooter’s identity, may have involved Chee. Leaphorn has had a decades long career and has been involved in countless cases, so which case is it?
THE LOWDOWN: Spider Woman’s Daughter is part police procedural and part murder mystery, both wrapped inside of a cop drama that follows a female Native American police officer. I want to describe this book as a character drama because Bernie, as a character, is far more interesting than the plot, which alternately simmers and meanders for 200+ pages. It is only in the last five or so chapters of this book’s 22 chapters that the mystery really starts to hop.
Navajo Nation Police Officer Bernadette “Bernie” Manuelito is an intriguing character. There is a lot to her. Her thoughts and actions are unpredictable, but not in some wild and chaotic way. To me, Bernie seems human. Anne Hillerman gives her weight and substance, so that I find her sticking to my imagination. I want to get to know her, and, most of all, to follow her around. Fiction, especially novels, needs to have a character worth following. Spider Woman’s Daughter has that in Bernie, and hopeful we can follow her in future novels, as Leaphorn and Chee take a backseat to her.
POSSIBLE AUDIENCE: Fans of the late Tony Hillerman and people looking for fiction featuring Native Americans will want to read Spider Woman’s Daughter.