Tony Hillerman creates a sense of place so strong and compelling you forget this is a mystery and just get caught up in the land, its people, and its history. More mystical than mystery, A Thief of Time is named for the criminals who steal Native American artifacts—in this case, Anasazi and Navajo pots—and sell them for exorbitant amounts. Those people, according to Navajo culture, are stealing their ancestors’ history.
In the book, an anthropologist who has found a treasure trove of artifacts disappears, and the Navajo Tribal Police are charged with finding her. It’s a compelling story, largely because of the cast of full-bodied characters, including two tribal policemen, several anthropologists, a random assortment of petty thieves, an influential Mormon leader with a sad secret, a New York museum curator, and a wealthy Manhattan pot collector.
Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn leads the search; this theoretically is one of his last cases, having given his notice of resignation after his beloved wife Emma died. The young Jim Chee joins him, trying to balance his police work with his unsuccessful attempts to become a Navajo shaman. Both are beautifully crafted characters whose frustration with one another is matched with a common love for their religion and traditions.
As well-woven as a Navajo rug, the story centers on the remarkable Chaco Canyon and the surrounding area of New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona. It won the Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel (1989) and was a nominee for the Anthony Award for Best Novel (1989) and the Edgar Award for Best Novel (1989).
It’s the eighth of 18 books Hillerman created featuring Leaphorn and Chee. His daughter Anne completed an additional two. PBS produced TV movies of three of them—A Thief of Time, Skinwalkers, and Coyote Flats—that are available through PBS or on Netflix.