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The Dark Wind

Tony Hillerman

A corpse whose palms and soles have been "scalped" is only the first in a series of disturbing clues: an airplane's mysterious crash in the nighttime desert, a bizarre attack on a windmill, a vanishing shipment of cocaine. Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is trapped in the deadly web of a cunningly spun plot driven by Navajo sorcery and white man's greed.

As Chee slowly finds out the truth about the missing drugs and jewelry, the plane crash victims, the windmill damage and the drug smuggling, he’s able to tie the threads of the different cases together. There are several elements that Hillerman uses to weave this story together. One of them is the steady level of tension. Of course, there’s the tension we feel as Chee investigates the case. But there are other kinds of tension, too. There are, of course, lots of ways to create and maintain tension in a story; here, Hillerman uses inter-departmental conflict. The U.S. government sends Agent Johnson to the Reservation to investigate the drug smuggling ring. While he’s interviewing Chee and Chee’s boss, Captain Largo, Johnson makes it clear that he suspects Chee of being involved in the drugs ring. The reader can sense quickly that there is no love lost between the Navajo Tribal Police, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the FBI, but Johnson and Chee are thrown together in the investigation.

Another source of tension in this story is the conflict over the windmill. This stems from the fact that members of the Hopi Nation will be moving onto some land that’s been designated for joint use between that Nation and the Navajo Nation. This will mean that the Navajos living there will have to move. So naturally, there’s resentment between members of the two groups. It’s not only the use of the land, either. Water is a rare and very precious commodity on the Reservation, and the damage to the windmill is a reflection of the ongoing conflict over water use.Another element that we see in The Dark Wind (and many other Hillerman novels) is a strong sense of place. Hillerman places his stories in the American Southwest, primarily on the Navajo Reservation. The majestic beauty and emptiness of the area adds a layer of setting to the novel that makes the story richer.

There are lots other examples in the novel of the stark beauty of this part of the country, and Hillerman uses them to really place the reader in the Southwest. As you can see from the ‘photo, the American Southwest has its own majesty and beauty, and Hillerman conveys that. Another important element of this novel is the sense of Navajo and Hopi culture. At the beginning of the novel, for instance, three young Hopi boys make a gruesome discovery. As they discuss what it might mean and what they should do about it, we get a real sense of their culture and belief system. Later, as Chee begins to ask questions about the trading post theft and about Joseph Musket, we get a sense of the Navajo culture, too. For instance, when he interviews Musket’s mother, we get a sense of the Navajo sense of family and the Navajo tradition of interactions with others.Chee himself is a member of the Navajo Nation and a yata’ali, a Navajo healer. Late in novel, we see an example of Chee’s sense of identity as a yata’ali as he prepares for a showdown with one of the antagonists in the story. He goes through the Stalking Way ceremonial, which is traditionally used for hunting. In this case, Chee uses it to prepare himself for the coming confrontation with the antagonist.

Besides the tension, the setting, and the sense of culture, Hillerman uses some fascinating characterization to keep the story moving along. First and foremost, there’s Chee himself. He’s a multidimensional character who brings his identity as a police officer, a Navajo and a healer to the task of detection. As he interacts with whites, other Navajos and Hopis, we see his ability to move between worlds, so to speak.Chee, of course, isn’t the only interesting character in the novel. One of Hillerman’s recurring characters who plays a role in this story is Deputy Sheriff Albert “Cowboy” Dashee, a member of the Hopi Nation. Dashee is not just a fellow police officer, but also a friend of Chee’s. He, too, bridges the gap between the white culture and his own Hopi world, and through his eyes, we get an interesting perspective on the events in the story.And then there’s Jake West, who owns the Burnt Water Trading Post. West’s a white man whose store is as much a social meeting place as it is a store. West hears a lot of the local gossip and Chee seeks him out as he tries to make sense of the various events.

What’s particularly interesting about these characters (and other, minor characters I haven’t mentioned) is that they fit in the setting and the story. They belong there, and are quite authentic. Hillerman’s use of tension, setting and characterization are just a few of the elements that hold The Dark Wind together.

Review by Margot Kinberg, Confessions of a Mystery Writer

Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to investigate vandalism to a local windmill. While he’s on duty one morning before dawn, Chee witnesses a plane crash. He doesn’t recognize any of the victims, but soon enough, the FBI gets involved in the case when it turns out that the plane was used in drug smuggling, and there’s a large supply of drugs missing. In fact, at first, Chee himself is suspected of being a part of the smuggling ring. At the same time, Chee’s investigating the theft of some pawned jewelry from the Burnt Water Trading Post. The jewelry hasn’t turned up, and Joseph Musket, the trading post employee who’s suspected of stealing the jewelry, has disappeared. To further complicate matters, there are whispers of witchcraft in the area, and Chee’s trying to get to the bottom of those rumors. 

About Tony Hillerman:

Tony Hillerman, who was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, was a decorated combat veteran from World War II, serving as a mortarman in the 103rd Infantry Division and earning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. Later, he worked as a journalist from 1948 to 1962. Then he earned a Masters degree and taught journalism from 1966 to 1987 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he resided with his wife until his death in 2008. 


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