A Thief of Time Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1988

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Detective and mystery

Time of work: The 1980’s

Locale: New Mexico

Characters DiscussedDr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal

Dr. Thief of Time, AEleanor Friedman-Bernal, an anthropologist whose specialty is Anasazi ceramics. Formerly married to an archaeologist who ran off with another woman, Friedman-Bernal is exploring ancient Anasazi burial areas on a New Mexico Navajo reservation in search of potsherds and the occasional intact pot. While exploring the ruins alone one night, she disappears, at about the same time an anonymous caller to the Navajo Tribal Police accuses her of violating the Antiquities Preservation Protection Act.

Joe Leaphorn

Joe Leaphorn, a lieutenant with the Navajo Tribal Police who is in the last two weeks of a thirty-day terminal leave prior to retirement. Nevertheless, he becomes involved in what appears to be a series of related events: the disappearance of Friedman-Bernal, the nighttime theft of government vehicles, and a pair of murders. Though a Navajo, he is not afraid of the chindi, spirits of the dead, because his career has immunized him against all but one, that of his wife, whose death he continues to mourn.

Jim Chee

Jim Chee, also an officer with the Navajo Tribal Police. He has strong ties to tribal traditions and religion, and he is concerned about disturbing the ghosts of the dead. His police responsibilities conflict with his beliefs when he has to search ruins of ancient burial grounds. Chee is hatathali, a Navajo singer and medicine man who has been trained to lead curing ceremonies. Having ended a relationship with a non-Navajo woman because of their cultural differences, he is tentatively embarking on a new one, this time with a fellow Navajo, Janet Pete, a lawyer with the tribal legal services office.

Maxie Davis

Maxie Davis, who is part of a contract archaeology team, with Friedman-Bernal, engaged in dating more than one thousand Anasazi sites, inventorying them, and determining which are significant enough to be preserved. Self-made and class-conscious, Davis remembers having been put down by the upper class over the years, so she instinctively resents someone like Elliot. Davis, who is Friedman-Bernal’s friend and neighbor, telephones the sheriff to report her colleague’s disappearance.

Randall Elliot

Randall Elliot, a wealthy former Navy helicopter pilot in Vietnam, now a specialist in cultural anthropology and a coworker of Davis and Friedman-Bernal, particularly of the former. According to Davis, once Elliot and she publish their study of the Anasazi, there will not be anything left for other scholars in the field to write. Elliot, who is very conscious of his upper-class birth and flaunts it, is drawn to Davis despite their different backgrounds. He hopes to impress her with his scholarship and thus overcome her instinctive class-motivated antagonism. To support his theory that genetic flaws could explain the disappearance of the Anasazis, he resorts to illegal digging, and when Friedman-Bernal catches him at it, he tries to kill her. He murders two others to prevent them from talking to the authorities.

Harrison Houk

Harrison Houk, a wealthy landowner, sometime dealer in Anasazi pots, and survivor. Twenty years earlier, his son Brigham allegedly killed the rest of the family (Brigham’s mother, sister, and brother) and then presumably drowned, though his body was not found. Faced with death, Houk hastily scrawls part of a message to Leaphorn, telling him that Friedman-Bernal still is alive. An atypical act for a tough guy and a scoundrel, it is significant to Leaphorn, who believes it is related to Houk’s one known soft spot, for his schizophrenic son Brigham. Another discovery Leaphorn makes about Houk is that the arthritic old man took the same downriver kayak journey at night every full moon, a dangerous trip that the detective replicates and that leads him not only to Friedman-Bernal but also to the fugitive Brigham, whose father for two decades had helped him avoid a life sentence in a prison for the criminally insane. These discoveries help Leaphorn solve the case.

Slick Nakai

Slick Nakai, a fundamentalist Christian evangelist of questionable honesty who tows his revival tent around the reservation, an area larger than that of New England. Although he calls himself simply a preacher, he also deals in ancient pottery, which he willingly takes in lieu of cash contributions and then sells to dealers and collectors such as Harrison Houk. Because of such dealings, Nakai is an early suspect in the disappearance of Friedman-Bernal, particularly after two of his sometime employees are killed.

BibliographyBakerman, Jane S. “Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.” In Cops and Constables: American and British Fictional Policemen, edited by Earl F. Bargainnier and George N. Dove. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1986. Shows how Hillerman’s novels address the realistic complications peculiar to fictional law-enforcement officers in a vast setting where jurisdictions overlap. Considers how Leaphorn and Chee maintain independence, resourcefulness, and a sense of justice in a cynical milieu of crime and violence. Focuses on the way ethnicity informs characterization.Engel, Leonard. “Landscape and Place in Tony Hillerman’s Mysteries.” Western American Literature 28 (Summer, 1993): 111-122. Insightful analysis of Leaphorn’s search for pattern in crime as a way of reestablishing his relationship to the Earth. Landscape imagery and sense of place are seen as at the core of Hillerman’s narrative method.Erisman, Fred. Tony Hillerman. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University, 1989. Extensive treatment of Hillerman’s work. Useful consideration of the theme of time– personal, professional, and cultural–in A Thief of Time, the “most regionally and humanly evocative of all the Navajo police stories.”Greenberg, Martin, ed. The Tony Hillerman Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to His Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. A well-researched guide to Hillerman’s life and works. Presents a chronology highlighting events in Hillerman’s life, a never-before-published interview with Hillerman, critical essays, a short essay on Navajo culture, and excerpts from Hillerman’s most popular fiction and non-fiction work.Laughlin, Rosemary. “Hillerman’s Harmony.” English Journal 82 (February, 1993): 63-65. Laughlin discusses the use of Hillerman’s novel as reading material in a college English course. She demonstrates that students learned that the Navajo way of walking in beauty could be used to assess their own behavior and attitudes.Reilly, John M. Tony Hillerman: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Provides a brief biography of Hillerman, along with an overview of his fiction. Discusses themes, plot, and characterization of many of Hillerman’s novels, and offers a critical perspective on several books. Includes a comprehensive bibliography and index.Roush, Jan. “The Developing Art of Tony Hillerman.” Western American Literature 28 (Summer, 1993): 99-110. Argues convincingly that Hillerman has created a new genre; the anthropological mystery. Shows how Hillerman’s fiction has shifted from romance to the novel.Schneider, Jack W. “Crime and Navajo Punishment: Tony Hillerman’s Novels of Detection.” Southwest Review 67 (Spring, 1982): 151-160. An analysis of how Hillerman adapts the classical detective novel to the vast Southwestern landscape. Schneider sees the books’ setting as not a passive background but as playing “an active role in the novels.”
Categories: Characters