, a crime novel by Tony Hillerman, concerns an investigation in the wake of the inexplicable murder of Eric Dorsey, a school shop teacher, which is followed by another murder that seems to be connected. Two officers for the police force of the Navajo tribe, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, scramble to get a lead on the murderer before he takes another life. The novel is notable for bending the typical plot structure of a crime novel to explore the nuances of tribal police forces and how they interact and litigate with American social and legal institutions and predominating narratives about crime.
The novel begins around the time of the murder of Mr. Dorsey, the shop teacher at Thoreau’s local mission school. Shortly after, a boy named Delmar Kanitewa sneaks out of a boarding school in Crownpoint, causing his grandmother to call the Navajo Tribal Police to track him down. Lieutenant Leaphorn leads an investigations unit and appoints Officer Chee to the staff. Chee learns that the boy had gone home to see his mother after the teacher was murdered. Delmar had a parcel related to a religious agenda to deliver to his uncle. Delmar then disappeared again, saying that he needed to return to his uncle. At a Tano ceremonial of koshares and kachinas, Chee sees Delmar in the distance. He runs off before Chee can confront him. The ceremony is also attended by Delmar’s uncle, a koshare named Francis Sayesva. When the ceremony pauses, Francis’s dead body is discovered mere feet from where Chee stands.
Next, an unknown driver kills a local man Victor Todachene in a hit and run accident. Leaphorn enlists Chee to find the driver, who comes on the local radio to apologize anonymously for his crime. He states that he will send cash to the family. The radio station finds out that the man is Clement Hoski. Chee follows him to his house but chooses not to arrest him in front of his young grandson. Meanwhile, the similar contexts of the two unexplained murders cause Leaphorn to look for connecting clues. He discovers that Dorsey had a replica of a famous artifact called the Lincoln cane that was in possession of the Tano Pueblo. Delmar had visited Dorsey to obtain a package for a friend, and enraged Dorsey by explaining its story. Dorsey told him to give the cane to the Tano. Just as Delmar departed, another man entered and killed Dorsey. Later, at the ceremony, Delmar’s uncle brandished the cane, using it to draw attention to its importance and to convince the governor not to sell it off. After he was killed, the replica vanished.
Meanwhile, Chee has fallen in love with a lawyer, Janet Pete, but is worried that Navajo incest law might forbid them to have a relationship. He leaves, neglecting to explain a cassette of a phone call between a man on the Navajo Council named Jimmy Chester and a lawyer named Ed Zeck who is lobbying for the repurposing of an open mine to store toxic waste. The two seem to be organizing a payoff. When the tape is broadcast on the local radio, Leaphorn is suspended by the Councilman. He continues to investigate nonetheless, discovering that Dorsey made two replicas of the cane. Chee finally returns and explains the tape, resulting in the end of Leaphorn’s suspension. They search Dorsey’s office again and find that the first cane was sold by his friend Ashton Davis, a specialist in Indian artifacts.
Delmar recognizes the face of a man named Applebee in the newspaper, claiming he is the man he saw before the murder of Mr. Dorsey. Leaphorn notifies the FBI agent working on the case, Dilly Streib, who goes to arrest him. Streib informs Leaphorn that Davis shot Applebee during the FBI raid and surrendered for arrest. Davis noticed the second fake cane at the Tano ceremony. He says that Applebee made it to politically destabilize the Tano governor. Applebee also put the cassette on the radio to hurt the Councilman, having been against the lobbying argument to dump toxic waste in the mine. The call, misconstrued as a payoff agreement, was really a talk about Chester and Zeck’s cattle business.
The novel wraps up its many separate plot lines elegantly, showing how they are all entangled in each other and centered on the production of the replica artifacts. Part of the mystery of Sacred Clowns
thus draws from the American Indian mythos behind the canes, which affects the theories and stories the detectives come up with. Ultimately, the search for objective truth is what makes the final difference, allowing the protagonists to penetrate the confusion and myth concealing the heart of the murders.