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Hillerman is slower but deeper 

Plus, a remarkable personal search

Beginning in 1970 with The Blessing Way, Tony Hillerman's Navajo Tribal Police mysteries evolved into one of the great series in American crime fiction. Hillerman has always given readers much more than murders to solve, immersing them in Navajo culture and highlighting its conflicts with white American, or belagana, society.

Since Hillerman's prime, American crime fiction has grown more gruesome and violent, and these days his often-contemplative pace and style can seem sleepy by comparison. He's 81 years old now, but his latest novel, The Shape Shifter, shows he still has new tricks to perform.

Former Lt. Joe Leaphorn, now retired, receives a letter from an erstwhile colleague, Mel Bork, who points out a picture of a Navajo tapestry in a "luxury living" magazine. That piece resembles a priceless "taleteller" rug which narrated the U.S. government's violent displacement of the Navajo -- and was supposedly destroyed in a fire, along with a wanted killer, decades ago when Leaphorn and Bork were rookie cops.

Leaphorn talks to the rug's current owner, super-rich Jason Delos; Bork is killed in a suspicious car crash; and the race is on to find out what really happened in that fire decades ago -- and how it relates, if at all, to Bork's death.

Hillerman changes his familiar narrative approach this time, presenting the story almost entirely from Leaphorn's point of view and moving the lieutenant's usual cohort Jim Chee to the margins. The result is a trade-off for readers: The book holds less suspense than most Hillerman works, but you get a more nuanced look at Leaphorn's gradual discovery of how the puzzle pieces fit.

One of those pieces is also one of Hillerman's most interesting characters in years: Delos' servant, Tommy Vang, who was adopted by his employer as a child in Cambodia. Vang's slowly dawning realizations are chilling, and help drive Leaphorn's investigation to its conclusion.

Some critics complain that Hillerman's later books lack his earlier works' vivid action scenes. But those reviewers are missing the point, I think, that while his plots have become simpler, Hillerman's vision of humans' relation to their cultures -- his most consistent subtext -- has become more expansive. In The Shape Shifter, his wider view shows up in the way he effortlessly ties together such dissimilar forces as Navajo curses, belagana greed, chance, and the residual effects of war -- with the implication that beneath our vast cultural differences, people are much alike, for good and bad.

Daniel Mendelsohn grew up in a large, extended Jewish family. When he was a child, elderly relatives would burst into tears when they saw him, so closely did he resemble Shmiel Jager, a great-uncle who, as family members put it, "was killed by the Nazis."

Intrigued by his family's history, he eventually came across a set of letters from Shmiel, asking for help from his American relatives as the Nazi boot began to come down harder on the Jews in their Polish town of Bolechow. Five years ago, Mendelsohn began a search to find out more about the life and death of Shmiel and his wife and four daughters. This memoir, the result of that search, is an intense, gripping, surprising, at times frustrating story of people caught up in history, and of the ways families find to live with tragedy.

The author interviewed everyone he could find who knew Shmiel and his family, traveling to Ukraine, Australia, Scandinavia and Israel. His meetings with newly discovered relatives and Shmiel's now very elderly acquaintances gradually elicit a good picture of what happened to his great-uncle's family, but not before he and his interviewees are put through an emotional wringer by Mendelsohn's intensity. Readers are put through a wringer of a different kind, as the author loops in and out of interpretations of the Torah, illustrating, for instance, stories of personal betrayal with the tale of Cain and Abel. Mendelsohn's digressions can be exciting, as he connects his family's lives to deep myths and archetypes. But at other times, his writing becomes self-conscious and the biblical ruminations seem gratuitous and show-offy.

Most of the time, however, Mendelsohn's gorgeous writing and his tenacity are a marvel. He brings to life the betrayals and heroics of the town of Bolechow, and reveals much about normal people rising, or succumbing, to extraordinary circumstances. It would have easily landed on my list of the best non-fiction books of 2006, despite my occasional reservations.

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