The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

Book Cover Shape Shifter Book Recommendation Photo

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The Shape Shifter is the last book written by Tony Hillerman, and is the final book in the mystery series he wrote featuring Navaho policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.  It’s probably not the most well-written book in the series, being a little awkward structurally.  Of course I’m going to explain what this book has that, nevertheless, makes it a recommended read!  If you want to read the whole series, an undertaking which I can heartily recommend, start with The Blessing Way.  Either way, you will find in The Shape Shifter a book at once thought provoking and intriguing.

The idea of shape shifting is both an ancient concept and comfortingly familiar as a device in science fiction and fantasy entertainment and art.  So…who, or what, is a shapeshifter when it comes to this final, unofficial case for Lieutenant Leaphorn?  Obviously human beings cannot shape shift, are too complex to shapeshift, and can’t by thought or dream or determination so much as add or subtract a couple of inches from something like height, and then return to their previous form.  We do have this odd thing called perception to help us along, but it rarely or probably never gives us access to a whole truth.  That should leave us wondering…and curious.

How does the shape of life shift when a policeman retires and isn’t really a policeman anymore?  When a bad policeman is in reality a murderer? When a good policeman breaks the law.  When a wife becomes a memory, and can no longer physically hold a conversation with her husband?   What does it mean to have a girlfriend, if the girlfriend inhabits a world where she is but a friend who is a girl?  What is a bad man or a criminal who does a good thing?  What about wondering about what might have been?  If a person is removed from their family and taught that their family beliefs aren’t rational, what shape does that give life when that thought can never be unthought?  What is the shift when a person is taught that they must either be a hunter or prey? 

There’s a lot if ideas to ponder when it comes to shape shifting. Especially since humans can’t do it.

In addition to the thought-provoking elements of the book, I enjoyed the way Joe Leaphorns thought processes were given.  His internal observations sometimes created a visual image of what was around him, moving the action forward.  At other times the way he was observing and weighing evoked a certain mood, a striving for something intangible and so ungraspable.  The unfolding of the story was interesting, even when it was not always especially surprising.  The desert setting and culture of the four corners area of the Western United States is an important and interesting part of the story.

Step into the shimmering desert, and consider what it means when perception has created a mirage, and there might be a question as to whether someone is willing to live—not in a mirage.


This Abibliophobe

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