ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In “Stargazer,” Anne Hillerman’s new, intense police procedural, readers can peer over the shoulder of Navajo police officer Bernadette Manuelito as she investigates the death of an astronomer working at the Very Large Array in central New Mexico.
The Anglo man’s body was found in his car, a bullet wound on the left side of his head. Did he commit suicide? Did someone kill him? Was that someone Maya Kelsey, who hurriedly confesses to the murder of her estranged husband?
Manuelito doesn’t buy the confession. It doesn’t fit Maya’s personality. Maya happens to be a dear friend of Manuelito’s from college and is now teaching at the Alamo Navajo band’s school, an hour’s drive from the VLA radio telescope observatory.
The investigation takes Manuelito a long way from her base in Shiprock.
On loan to the short-handed Socorro County Sheriff’s Office, Manuelito is a dogged interviewer. She talks to the jailed Maya, to Maya’s brother, her teenage son, her boyfriend who’s a coach at the Alamo school, a female colleague of the victim’s at the VLA and a male colleague in Hawaii where the victim had worked.
Hillerman revealed that three-fourths of the way into writing the “Stargazer” manuscript she changed who the villain would be.
“The initial villain I thought I wanted to use turned out not to have committed the crime,” she explained in a phone interview from her home in Santa Fe. “Another character had begun to act very suspicious, so I switched gears. Maybe because I was surprised (at the villain’s identity), readers will be surprised, too,” Hillerman said.
Sorry, no hints from this reviewer.
In this sixth mystery by Hillerman, Manuelito continues to juggle the demands of her assignment in distant Socorro County with the demands of family. She feels anxious that she’s not nearby to check on her needy mother and wonders if her sister is doing her part in providing attention and care.
Working away from home is a double strain on Manuelito’s relationship with Navajo Police Sgt. Jim Chee, her husband and acting boss.
The character of Joe Leaphorn, remembered from the late Tony Hillerman’s long-running mystery series, may be a retired cop, but he remains the go-to guy for Manuelito and Chee for sage advice about the criminal mind.
One reason Anne Hillerman set some of “Stargazer” on the Alamo Navajo reservation is to place her novels in Navajo locales her father never wrote about.
“While I was working on (the 2019 novel) ‘The Tale Teller,’ I became interested in the Alamo Navajo reservation because there are a lot of interesting stories about how that community got established” west of Socorro, Hillerman said.
One story she relates in “Stargazer” is that some Navajos hunted by Kit Carson in the mid-19th century in Canyon de Chelly escaped through a side canyon and fled south, avoiding the infamous Long Walk. Another story is that Navajos hid with the Zuni after hearing of their impending roundup by soldiers. Yet another has it that Navajos escaped from a holding camp at Fort Wingate and fled to the Alamo area before the Long Walk.
As a bonus, readers get a view of stars through Hillerman’s descriptions of elements of Navajo cosmology. Here’s a taste: “First Man carefully designed constellations to add to the light from the moon; how he placed a fragment of mica in the North as a fixed point … and three more bright pieces of mica in the South, East, and West; and how he built several constellations before Ma’ii, the Coyote Trickster, grabbed the blanket on which the stars sat and tossed them all into the sky.”
The settings of the planned seventh mystery in her series, Hillerman said, will be at Rainbow Bridge and Antelope Canyon near Lake Powell.