This is a mystery novel, that based on the fact of something like 15 sequels launched two careers (of the writer Tony Hillerman, and later his daughter Anne Hillerman, who would pick up the series some 30 years later) as well as the careers of a few fictional detectives/police. It’s clear from this first novel though that there’s some searching for what exactly this novel and this eventual series wants to be. We follow not the police detective through most of this novel but an anthropologist studying the local Navajo archeological sites. This positioning between the everyday crime and experiences of the tribe, and the historical oppression and exploitation through the anthropologist, as well as the longterm health and history of the tribe plays out in a lot of interesting ways. It’s reasonably dreary novel as a consequence.
Placed in time, this novel has some interesting connections to other works coming out around the same time. There’s some references here to Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, and this book almost prefigures a lot of the novels that will be coming out later on in this decade, especially with the uncomfortable connections with the experiences of Native American experiences in Vietnam. I still think this book is trying to figure itself out even by the time we’re done.