Tony Hillerman’s mystery novel A Thief of Time
, the eighth book in the Leaphorn & Chee
series, follows detectives hunting for a missing anthropologist and precious artifacts. The book, a popular installment in the long-standing series, won the 1989 Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel. Hillerman served as a mortarman in the 103rd Infantry Division during World War II, during which time he earned numerous medals. In 1996, he was ranked as New Mexico’s 25th Wealthiest Man. Prior to his death in 2008, he was an international bestselling author.
Officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee work for the Navajo Tribal Police. Free-spirited by nature, Joe loves police detective work because he can use his own ingenuity to solve crimes. He doesn’t follow many of the Navajo traditions, which brings him into conflict with some of his own people—including Jim. Jim is very traditional; when he’s not busy with police detective work, he’s studying to become a healer. Although they have different worldviews, Joe and Jim work well together.
Joe is in turmoil. His wife, Emma, recently had brain surgery for a cancerous tumor; she didn’t survive the surgery. Joe is struggling to move forward. On compassionate leave for a while now, he is planning to retire from the Navajo Tribal Police altogether. He hands in his resignation letter, not intending to return once his leave expires.
However, BLM agent Thatcher has a job for him. He wants Joe to go with him to Chaco National Park, where an anthropologist, Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, has been accused of stealing Anasazi relics. These relics are on protected land, making her “a thief of time.” However, when Joe and Thatcher get to the site, they find out that the woman is missing.
Joe asks questions about Dr. Friedman-Bernal and what she’s been studying at the site. He learns that she thought she was close to a major new discovery; she had identified rare pot markings on the relics. Thinking she could be in trouble, Joe decides to take on the case before retiring for good.
Meanwhile, Jim is having a quiet spell at work. He’s depressed because a woman he loves has moved away, and he doesn’t have any interesting cases to work on. He’s currently watching over the tribal property and the digging equipment, but he can’t focus. While he’s not at his station, someone steals a backhoe from the digging equipment site. Now, Jim must find the thieves and answer to his superiors for not doing his job properly.
However, Jim has bigger problems than trouble with his bosses. Discovering that one of the thieves is friends with a local preacher, he decides to attend the next meeting to find out more. While at the meeting, he gets a tipoff about the backhoe. He finds an abandoned trailer with the backhoe inside—alongside two dead bodies. Jim assumes these men must be the thieves, but the circumstances look suspicious.
Meanwhile, Joe finds out more about Dr. Friedman-Bernal. He discovers that she took camping gear with her, so she expected to be away for a while studying the artifacts on her own. However, he later turns up bags filled with precious Anasazi bones, and he knows she wouldn’t leave these behind unattended. At the same site, he runs into Jim, who is investigating the suspected murder of the men in the trailer.
Jim and Joe decide to work together; their cases seem too closely linked to be unconnected. The first thing they must do is find the missing doctor, because, at this point, she’s presumed to be alive. The best way to find her is to trace the pots she unearthed. Jim discovers these are going to be sold at an auction house; he and Joe go there to track down the buyer.
Jimmy Etcitty is the buyer. When he purchased the pots, he obtained a diagram showing precisely where Dr. Friedman-Bernal found them. He tells Joe that the doctor is alive, but shortly after this meeting, Etcitty murdered. Joe and Jim know if they don’t find the doctor soon, she’ll likely end up dead.
Joe wants to know who else was working the dig site around the time Dr. Friedman-Bernal disappeared. He discovers Randall Elliot was also doing research there. Randall’s alibi doesn’t check out, and Jim is convinced that he is responsible for the doctor’s disappearance—and the murders. They race to track Randall down.
The detectives head to Many Ruins Canyon, where they believe Randall is hiding. Instead, they find the doctor. She’s wounded but alive, but she tells them they need to leave before Randall gets back. When Randall returns, he confesses his crimes; he tries to kill the doctor. Wanting all the credit for the findings, he has to get rid of her for good. He’s shot dead with a bow and arrow.
Later, Joe tells Jim he is not retiring from the police force after all. Instead, he’s found his passion for solving crimes again, and he wants to work with Jim. Happy to hear this, Jim agrees.