Dance Hall of the Dead
(1973), a crime fiction novel by Tony Hillerman, is the second in his Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn Navajo Tribal Police Series
(following 1970’s The Blessing Way
). Hillerman’s series is notable for the nuanced way it depicts Native American cultures as distinct and unique from each other, unlike the vast bulk of Western entertainment that tends to conflate all American Indian cultures with one another.
Ernesto Cata is practicing his role impersonating the Fire God Shulawitzi for an upcoming Zuni religious ceremony. He sees a vision of the god Shalako coming from the Dance Hall of the Dead. Only the initiated or those about to die can see Shalako. Having seen Shalako, Ernest puts on his running shoes, knowing he must chant, dance, and run all night long.
The next day, Ernesto’s friend George Bowlegs is disturbed when Ernesto doesn’t show up for school; he leaves class to go search for him. When George is also deemed to be missing, Zuni Police Chief Ed Pasquaanti brings in Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn to assist; Pasquaanti searches for Ernesto, and Joe takes on George. At a spot where George was supposed to meet Ernesto to return his bicycle, the police find blood.
George’s little brother Cecil tells Joe that both boys were fleeing the same spirit, called a kachina
. He also tells Joe that Ernesto had stolen some artifacts from a nearby archaeological site. Joe visits the site, speaking with Ted Isaacs, who is working under Professor Chester Reynolds, who is trying to prove a theory he has that Folsom Man’s culture existed much longer than most scientists believe possible. Reynolds denies that anything has been stolen, though he did bar Ernesto and George from the site. Ted tells Joe that Reynolds has also forbidden his girlfriend, Susanne, from living with him on the dig site; he suggests Joe speaks to her. Joe travels to Jason’s Fleece, a hippie commune established nearby where Ted’s girlfriend, Susanne, lives. He is surprised to see symbols from the Zuni religion there. Susanne tells Joe that George had told her he was afraid of something and was researching the Zuni religion.
Ernesto’s body is found beheaded; Pasquaanti and his family dig up the corpse. Joe, helping the Bowlegs prepare their home for the event of George’s death, which seems likely, discovers that a note George had written to Cecil is missing. Their father, the alcoholic and unreliable Shorty, was seen near the home just as Joe arrived. Hearing the Zuni phrase “Dance Hall,” Joe seeks out the Catholic priest, Father Ingles, who instructed both boys at the local school. Father Ingles explains that George was searching for a religion, a place to belong.
Clues lead Joe to a lake in nearby Arizona; Joe comes across Susanne hitchhiking; she accompanies him as they search for George. They find signs that George was there: the prints of his horse, a deer killed, skinned, and consumed. There are also moccasin prints at each site, but Joe has not seen anyone wearing these particular moccasins. Joe, stumbling into a deer trap that has been modified to trap a human being, is dosed with powerful tranquilizers. As he loses consciousness, he tells Susanne to take his gun to fight off whoever comes; Susanne does so. When Joe regains consciousness, they leave the area without any further clues as to George’s whereabouts.
Joe finds that several more law enforcement agencies have become involved in the hunt for Ernesto’s killer and George Bowlegs. The FBI has taken control of the investigation, believing it is connected to illegal drug smuggling.
In a moment of inspiration, Joe knows who killed Ernesto. He seeks George at the Zuni ceremony Ernesto had been preparing for and finds himself one step behind the killer, who murders George. The Zuni community, however, seizes the man, pulling him into a doorway; Joe leaves off the chase, confident that the Zuni will exact justice.
Joe explains to Pasquaanti that Professor Reynolds was the killer; he was falsifying his data from the dig site to support his theories. The items George and Ernesto had stolen and the note they passed between them would have revealed this, and so Reynolds killed both boys, as well as Shorty Bowlegs. Joe explains that the FBI won’t be interested in stolen artifacts or Professor Reynolds, who will simply become a missing person, his fate having been served by the Zuni. Cecil will go live with relatives now that his father is dead.
The distinct culture, religion, and social order of the Zuni and Navajo, as well as their shared contrasts to the mainstream culture of predominantly white America, are major themes in the story; the detective work is as much about piecing together cultural clues as it is solving a murder.