In 1956, two airliners crashed over the Grand Canyon, killing 172 people and leaving their remains scattered along the Canyon. In Skeleton Man, Tony Hillerman has created a novel based off the event and set nearly fifty years later. This is the seventeenth novel in the series, featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo tribal police force. By this time, Leaphorn has retired, but pops in occasionally to assist Chee in his investigations, and in this book, he basically plays a small cameo role.
These novels are set on the borderlands between New Mexico and Arizona, and this one takes place mostly in the area around the Grand Canyon. It opens when a young Indian man named Billy Tuve attempts to pawn a diamond that’s worth $20,000 for $20.00. As a young boy, Billy suffered a head injury in a rodeo accident that left him somewhat mentally challenged, and he’s arrested and charged with stealing the diamond from a trading post.
Billy claims that the diamond was given to him by a mysterious old man at the bottom of the
Grand Canyon in trade for a shovel. He also says that the old man had many other diamonds just like it.
Enter a woman named Joanna Craig. Craig’s father, a diamond courier, was on one of the planes that crashed into the canyon in 1956. Handcuffed to his wrist was a briefcase containing a fortune in valuable diamonds. Many years later, someone floating down the river reported seeing an arm sticking out of the water with a handcuff attached to it. But before they could retrieve it, it was swept away by the water and never found.
Joanna’s father was also flying home with a special diamond to give her mother who was then pregnant with Joanna. The two were not yet married and the diamond was to be her mother’s wedding gift. Joanna’s mother had letters from her father documenting the relationship, rejoicing in the pregnancy, and confirming the marriage plans. But the father’s very wealthy family refused to accept this evidence and refused to acknowledge either Joanna or her mother and the two were left to fend for themselves.
Joanna has always borne a grievance for the way her mother was treated and wants the link to her father confirmed. When news of the diamond surfaces, she races to Arizona in the slim hope that the diamonds might lead her to what’s left of her father’s arm. DNA tests on the arm could prove paternity.
Jim Chee steps into the case in an effort to protect Billy Tuve and to determine how he actually came into possession of the diamond, especially after someone else tells a similar story. Could there really be an old man passing our diamonds at the bottom of the Grand Canyon?
Unfortunately, of course, the news of the discovery will also attract some unsavory characters who hope to find the diamonds and otherwise profit themselves, and all of this will come to a stunning climax at the bottom of the canyon in the middle of a tremendous monsoon rain storm.
The attraction of these books lies in large part in the settings, which Hillerman so vividly creates and in the Navajo and Hopi customs and beliefs which are integral to the stories. This is not the strongest book in the series; personally, I prefer the earlier books where Leaphorn was the central character, but it’s still a good one and should not be missed by fans of the series.