When Acting Lt. Jim Chee catches a Hopi poacher huddled over a butchered Navajo Tribal police officer, he has an open-and-shut case--until his former boss, Joe Leaphorn, blows it wide open. Now retired from the Navajo Tribal Police, Leaphorn has been hired to find a hot-headed female biologist hunting for the key to a virulent plague lurking in the Southwest. The scientist disappeared from the same area the same day the Navajo cop was murdered. Is she a suspect or another victim? And what about a report that a skinwalker--a Navajo witch--was seen at the same time and place too? For Leaphorn and Chee, the answers lie buried in a complicated knot of superstition and science, in a place where the worlds of native peoples and outside forces converge and collide.
It seems like July 8 is going to be a bad day for Acting Lieutenant Jim Chee. He's got a stack of overdue paperwork on his desk. Anderson Nez has died of plague, but the circumstances around the death are murky. His ex-fiancée, Janet Pete, is returning from Washington, D.C., and Chee doesn't know what to think about her last letter. (Will they be getting married this time?) And Officer Benny Kinsman's unwanted advances have enraged Catherine Pollard (among others), one of the scientists studying this newest outbreak of the black death. Now, the hot-headed Kinsman's gone off to nab a Hopi man who's poaching eagles. When Chee is called to back Kinsman up at Yells Back Butte, the bad day turns worse. He finds the young Hopi, Robert Jano, standing over Benny's mortally wounded body. Jano insists that he did not kill the police officer. Add to all this Joe Leaphorn's separate investigation, also involving July 8. Joe's got a new role as consulting detective to the wealthy--investigating the July 8 disappearance at Yells Back Butte of the same Catherine Pollard who was dogged by Kinsman.
This one bad day and the ensuing days of investigation bring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee together once again as they uncover the secret of Yells Back Butte, plague fleas, and skinwalkers. As usual, Hilllerman's ear for dialogue is remarkable. One does not read Leaphorn and Chee's words and thoughts as much as hear them. While the book invites new readers (little knowledge of the previous books in the series is presumed), one has the sense of entering an old neighborhood where friends and relations are established and emotions run deep. Jim Chee's pain is vivid as he struggles under the shadow of Leaphorn and questions the "rusty trailer" lifestyle that has driven him apart from Janet. Nothing is contrived in his mixture of fear and elation when he and Janet meet again.
Hillerman has written an engaging novel that once again evokes the land and people of the Southwest while also confronting the cultural separateness of the region from the power centers of the East. Already honored for his previous work (Dance Hall of the Dead received the Edgar), The First Eagle is a welcome addition to the beloved Chee-Leaphorn series that began in 1971 with The Blessing Way. --Patrick O'Kelley