The Shape Shifter

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The Shape Shifter
First edition cover
Author Tony Hillerman
Cover artist Peter Thorpe
Country USA
Language English
Series Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police Series
Genre Detective fiction
Set in Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation in Southwestern United States
Published 2006 HarperCollins
Media type Print and audio
Pages 276
Awards Spur Award for Best Western Short Novel in 2007
ISBN 0-06-056345-1
OCLC 61264361
Preceded by Skeleton Man, 2004
Followed by Spider Woman's Daughter, written by Anne Hillerman, 2013

The Shape Shifter is the eighteenth crime fiction novel in the Joe Leaphorn / Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police series by Tony Hillerman, first published in 2006. It was a New York Times best-seller[1] and the last Chee/Leaphorn novel by Hillerman published before Hillerman's death on October 26, 2008.[2]

A cold case from Lt. Leaphorn's earliest days as a police officer finds new evidence, which he pursues though he is retired. The slick and cruel perpetrator continues his same modus operandi, but Leaphorn gets evidence on this elusive murderer and thief, leading to a dangerous final encounter. The story ties the 1860s forced Long Walk of the Navajo, US operations in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, Navajo beliefs of greed as the main evil, and the concept of skinwalker or shape shifter in a 21st-century tale.

Plot summary[edit]

While Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito honeymoon in Hawaii, Mel Bork sends Leaphorn a page from a glossy magazine, showing the interior of a fine home. The main item on the wall is a tale-telling rug made in the 1860s of the long walk back from Bosque Redondo, which is called the Woven Sorrow Rug. Leaphorn saw that rare rug long ago in Totter's Trading Post & Gallery, which burned down in 1965. Besides destroying the rug, that fire killed a man beyond recognition, who was identified by the FBI as Ray Shewnack, a man on their most-wanted list. Leaphorn calls Bork, learning from his wife that Mel has not been home for two days. There is a threatening message from a stranger that Mel never heard. Leaphorn begins to search for Mel. The rug would be nearly impossible to duplicate, raising the suspicion that the rug was not destroyed, as reported decades earlier. Leaphorn recalls how he was diverted from aiding Grandma Peshlakai, whose entire collection of pinyon sap for making baskets had been stolen from her, and her granddaughter saw the car driving away with it. Leaphorn’s boss had sent him to join the FBI at Totter’s place instead. She was very angry with him.

Leaphorn learns that Jason Delos owns the house shown in the magazine photo. Gossip links Delos to stories of CIA in Vietnam in the 1960s. Leaphorn calls Sgt. Garcia, who tells him the story of Ray Shewnack and his burglary of Handy’s gas station and grocery back in 1961. Shewnack told one plan to the employees (Ellie, Begay and Delonie), then carried it out differently, murdering the owners and setting up the employees to go to prison for abetting, while he drove away with the money. Begay is dead, apparently of suicide. Garcia tells this story as they drive to the remains of Totter’s place. They meet Delonie there, recently out of prison. Heading home, they stop at Grandma Peshlakai’s place, learning that she found her empty buckets at Totter’s place after the fire. A few years after the fire, she heard Totter had died, via a notice in a Gallup newspaper.

Back home, Chee and Bernie agree to find this death notice. The notice of Totter’s death in 1967 said he was buried in the VA cemetery in Oklahoma. Leaphorn visits Jason Delos, asking for help in finding Mel Bork. Delos admits that Bork had visited him, suggesting that there might be insurance fraud as to the antique rug. Delos’s man, Tommy Vang, gives Leaphorn a bag of food including homemade fruitcake, to take on his long drive home, but Leaphorn does not eat any of it. At home, he hears the news of the man killed in a vehicle crash two days earlier. He calls Garcia, certain it was Bork, and says that an autopsy will be needed. Then Leaphorn meets with Ted Rostic, retired FBI agent, who had been part of the 1965 case. Shewnack was known as George Perkins in the CIA in the early 1960s, matching the gossip attached to Delos; Perkins’s way of operating in Vietnam matches how Shewnack operated in his crimes. He never left physical evidence of himself at any crime scene, nor did he leave any witnesses who saw his face. The identification at Totter’s was determined by the FBI circumstantially. Leaphorn has theories, also with no evidence. His notion now is that the stolen pinyon sap, so common in the area, was used as the fire accelerant at Totter’s place, not considered as such by the investigators.

In Crownpoint, Leaphorn learns that Delos will put his antique rug up for sale. The autopsy of Bork reveals a potent, fast-acting, ingested rat poison, one now regulated, is what killed him. The pathologist says the poison could have been put in a maraschino cherry. After that cell phone call, Leaphorn sees Tommy Vang searching his pick-up truck, holding the sack of food. Vang tells Leaphorn his story with Delos, since his childhood in Laos. Vang’s next errand is to find Delonie, take pictures of him and leave him a jar of maraschino cherries. Vang will get lost rejoining Delos with the maps he has, so Leaphorn joins him. Vang wants to go back home to find his people. Delos did not do well by Vang. Vang realizes that Delos has used those cherries more than once to kill people. As they drive, Rostic’s friend calls Leaphorn to say that Totter was not in the hospital nor buried in a VA cemetery, which means he is not dead. Leaphorn tells Vang of the Handy crime and how Delonie is someone who can recognize Shewnack. Leaphorn makes clear that Delos has the same fate planned for Vang as for Delonie. The three of them go to the elk-hunting ranch past Dulce, New Mexico, so Delonie can identify Delos as Shewnack. They see a hole dug the size of a grave. Before dawn, Delos approaches Vang in his truck while Delonie watches with Leaphorn. All four come together; Delos shoots Delonie, who falls. Delos tells everyone what to do. He instructs Vang to shoot Delonie again. Instead, Vang kills Delos. Leaphorn thanks him for saving their lives. They tend to Delonie’s wound, and then bury Delos and his personal effects in the grave. They find a huge amount of cash in his bags, and give most of it to Vang as back wages. They find a clinic for Delonie in Dulce. Vang and Leaphorn drive to Crownpoint, for Leaphorn’s pick-up truck. Vang leaves, getting happier by the minute as he can go home.

Leaphorn visits the Chees, telling them some of the story. He will tell them what happened to Delos in a year, if nothing bad arises before then. He gets them to think about the Navajo concept of the shape shifter who stole pinyon sap from Grandma Peshlakai. He does tell them how he repaid her for the long ago theft.


  • Joe Leaphorn: Retired lieutenant from the Navaho Tribal Police, widowed. He lives in Window Rock, Arizona.
  • Jim Chee: Sergeant in the Navajo Tribal Police and recently married. He lives in Shiprock, New Mexico.
  • Bernadette Manuelito: Formerly a federal Customs Patrol Officer and previously an officer in the Navajo Tribal Police; she is now wife of Jim Chee and soon to resume as an officer in the NTP.
  • Captain Largo: Chee's superior officer, and whose view of the FBI is well-remembered by Rostic.
  • Louisa Bourebonette: Professor of cultural anthropology with a special interest in origin stories of the tribes around Northern Arizona University. She is Leaphorn's close friend, who uses Leaphorn's spare room as the base for her dispersed interviews. Introduced in Coyote Waits.
  • Mel Bork: Private investigator, former Arizona police officer, and long before, with Leaphorn in FBI school. He is killed in car accident after visiting Jason Delos.
  • Grace Bork: Wife of Mel, awaiting his return home.
  • Gerald Tarkington: Gallery owner in Flagstaff who shares Telos name with Bork, and then with Leaphorn.
  • Grandma Peshlakai: Victim of theft of carefully collected piñon sap in 1965 for making baskets. She recovered the empty containers at Totter's place after the fire.
  • Elandra: Granddaughter who saw the car driving away with the piñon sap.
  • Erwin James Totter: Owner of Totter's Trading Post & Gallery near Tohatchi, New Mexico, long ago destroyed by fire. A Gallup newspaper printed a poorly documented obituary of his death in Oklahoma City. Born in 1939 in Ada, OK. In autumn 1965, his Trading Post was burned down.
  • Ray Shewnack: Committed 1961 burglary and murders in Coconino County and other places, putting him in the most-wanted list by the FBI. Presumed killed by the fire in Totter's Trading Post & Gallery in 1965.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Handy: Owned a service station/grocery store/trading post at Chinli junction. Murdered in cold blood by Shewnack in a 1961 robbery.
  • Ellie McFee: Employee at Handy's who expected Shewnack to marry her after the theft of the monthly take. She was left standing along the road waiting for him, met by the young Garcia and another officer instead. She served her time in prison, but is dead by the time Delonie appears in the story.
  • Benny Begay: Stock boy at Handy's place. He kept phone lines out of service for about ten minutes, to delay the call to the police. Out on parole when Shewnack was burned to death. Made a life for himself after his sentence. Killed in gun-cleaning accident, one which Leaphorn doubts. He suspects Begay was murdered.
  • Tomas Delonie: The outside man during the Handy burglary, armed so no one would interfere in the crime. Afterward, he drove himself and Begay to a meeting place to get their share of the take. Instead, Shewnack called them in to the police. He got the longest sentence, and is released during the story. He is Seminole, Potawatomi, and partly of French ancestry and loves to feed the birds.
  • Kelly Garcia: Police sergeant in the Coconino County sheriff's department in Flagstaff.
  • Roger Saunders: Pathologist for Flagstaff police who agrees to test for the true cause of Bork's death.
  • Octavius Burlander: Navajo rug expert at the periodic sale in Crownpoint, New Mexico, who shares information with Leaphorn.
  • Jason Delos: Wealthy man in Flagstaff, Arizona who owns the Navajo tale-teller rug supposed to have been burned in 1965 fire at Totter's Gallery, about 70 years old. Rumored to have been in the CIA in the 1960s. A man who divides humanity into predators and prey, and he is a predator. The shape shifter of so many identities, including Totter and Shewnack.
  • Tommy Vang: Middle-aged Hmong man who lives with Delos, as a sort of butler. His family was in Laos, wiped out during the Vietnam War, and Delos, known to him initially as Colonel Perkins, brought him to the US after the fall of Saigon.
  • Ted Rostic: Retired FBI agent, investigator at Totter's Trading Post in 1965, lives in Crownpoint, New Mexico at time of story. He worked with Leaphorn in Coyote Waits, as well as on the 1965 case.

Reviews and awards[edit]

Kirkus Reviews says there is not much mystery in this novel but Hillerman's warmth is undiminished:

Lt. Joe Leaphorn, who can’t seem to stay retired, investigates a case that takes him back to his earliest days with the Navajo Tribal Police. When Erwin Totter’s trading post burned to the ground back in 1965, the news that Ray Shewnack, a fugitive on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, had perished in the blaze drew all available officers to the scene. Joe Leaphorn (Skeleton Man, 2004, etc.) was pulled away from Grandma Peshlakai’s, where he’d gone in hopes of recovering the ten gallons of pinyon sap stolen from her. It was a waste of time, Grandma Peshlakai insisted, since the man was certainly dead. Now Leaphorn’s old friend Mel Bork, a private eye in Flagstaff, has disappeared after sending Leaphorn a photograph of a tribal rug that’s supposed to have been destroyed in the Totter fire. If the rug survived—and when Leaphorn treks out to Flagstaff to examine it as it hangs on the wall of big-game hunter Jason Delos’s lodge—maybe Shewnack, a holdup artist who managed to kill two victims and finger his three accomplices to the police, isn’t dead after all. Not much mystery this time, and Sgt. Jim Chee and his bride Bernadette Manuelito (“now it’s Chee”) are mostly kept offstage. But Hillerman’s warmth is undiminished as he follows a dogged old cop who burns up gasoline by driving all over Arizona because he can’t bear to sit at home.[3]

Marilyn Stasio finds that "Like all the great storytellers, from Homer on down, Tony Hillerman knows that every dark and twisted tale of murder can be traced back to its mythic origins. ... Hillerman’s lyrical novel is as much about recovering these lost legends — and the existential purpose they offer an aging hero in recoil from “the retirement world” — as it is about bringing a criminal to justice. So there’s real poignancy in Leaphorn’s efforts to track down an antique rug woven to commemorate “all the dying, humiliation and misery” on the Navajo nation’s “Long Walk” home from an Army concentration camp in the 1860s."[4]

Irene Wanner, writing in the Los Angeles Times, says "The central image of changing identity -- of shifting shapes -- . . . leads to philosophical discussions between Leaphorn and those he encounters." Leaphorn, in his response to the letter from his friend Bork, is "launching a story that goes far beyond solving a whodunit." She feels this story will be "another of his [Hillerman's] books likely to cross over from the mystery genre to find wide general popularity."[5]

Publishers Weekly finds the conclusion is sure to startle readers, in contrast to what Kirkus Reviews finds, and that the author has masterfully woven disparate elements such as a 19th-century rug, stolen piñon sap, and the Vietnam War in this hunt for a soulless killer.

A picture cut from a glossy magazine, Luxury Living , draws retired Navajo tribal policeman Lt. Joe Leaphorn into a hunt for a soulless killer in bestseller Hillerman's enthralling 18th Leaphorn/Chee whodunit (after 2004's Skeleton Man). The picture's sender, Mel Bork, another cop retiree, wonders if the distinctive Navajo rug shown in the picture is the same one Leaphorn described to him long ago, a rug supposedly destroyed in a fire the two officers investigated that took the life of a person identified as among the FBI's most wanted. Bork's subsequent disappearance and murder herald the dangers awaiting Leaphorn from a most formidable enemy. As Leaphorn searches for evidence to confirm his suspicions, he enlists the aid of Sgt. Jim Chee and his bride, Bernadette Manuelito, just back from their honeymoon. Only Hillerman could so masterfully connect such disparate elements as an ancient cursed weaving, two stolen buckets of piñon sap and the Vietnam War. The conclusion is sure to startle longtime fans of this acclaimed mystery series.[6]

The novel received the award for Best Western Short Novel in 2007, awarded by the Western Writers of America, which "annually honors writers for distinguished writing about the American West".[7]

Series continuity and story structure[edit]

This novel continues directly after Skeleton Man, in that the engaged couple, Chee and Manuelito, are now married and just back from their honeymoon. Leaphorn is retired, but oddly refers to being retired just a month (Chapters 6, 7, 10, 11), when he has been retired since the twelfth novel in the series, The Fallen Man. He continues to miss his late wife Emma, who died between Skinwalkers and A Thief of Time, the seventh and eight novels in the series. He finds companionship with Louisa Bourebonette, and once again asks her about them getting married. She does not want to ruin a good friendship, and Leaphorn is at peace with that (Chapter 14).

The story is told in flashback to Chee and Manuelito (Chapters 1 and 2, and 24). They do not hear all of the story, as Leaphorn fears that as both are sworn officers, they ought not to learn some of the facts from him, a civilian. They do some legwork for him, but this is mainly his story. Leaphorn promises to tell them the whole story on their first wedding anniversary if nothing arises to gain the attention of the law (Chapter 24). The reader gets the whole story from Leaphorn.

Allusions to history and real places[edit]

As the antique rug at the center of the plot was made in the 1860s by women walking back from Bosque Redondo in the Long Walk of the Navajo, much of the story of that sad part of Navajo history is told in the story. The history of conflicts in the Navajo homelands, the Navajo Wars, in particular the conflicts leading up to the Long Walk is discussed by Leaphorn as action of the novel progresses.

Reference is made to the return point Fort Defiance, Arizona, and to Fort Sumner, the fort near Bosque Redondo where the Navajos were forced to live for several years with members of an enemy tribe.

The history of the US and specifically the CIA in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s is part of the history of two major characters of the novel. Delos was associated with the CIA as Colonel Perkins, but skimmed money in transactions in which he took part during the Kennedy years, causing his rejection by the CIA, and providing him time to return to the US to make his living by crimes. Tommy Vang was born in that era, part of the Hmong displaced to Vietnam, who left as a child with Perkins / Delos after the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

Much of the story takes place in Flagstaff, Arizona, where Sgt. Kelly Garcia is based and the experts in Navajo rugs and ancient artifacts have their place of business. The home of Delos is in the mountains outside Flagstaff. Leaphorn lives in Window Rock, Arizona. Jim Chee and his wife Bernadette Manuelito live in Shiprock, New Mexico in Jim's old trailer home, fixed up by Berrnie, and where Leaphorn visits them. Leaphorn meets a rug expert, and then Tommy Vang, in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Dulce, New Mexico is a stopping point near Delonie's home and where he is left in the clinic, part of the Jicarilla Apache reservation.


  1. ^ "Best sellers: December 19, 2004". New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2016. 
  2. ^ Stasio, Marilyn (October 27, 2008). "Tony Hillerman, Novelist, Dies at 83". New York Times. Retrieved March 19, 2016. 
  3. ^ "The Shape Shifter" (March 1, 2006 ed.). Kirkus Reviews. May 20, 2010. Retrieved October 4, 2014. 
  4. ^ Stasio, Marilyn (November 26, 2006). "Crime: Death Threads". New York Times. Retrieved 15 April 2014. 
  5. ^ Wanner, Irene (November 21, 2006). "Haves, have-nots and intrigue in Southwest". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 1, 2015. 
  6. ^ "The Shape Shifter". Publishers Weekly. November 2006. Retrieved April 1, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Spur Awards 2007". Western Writers of America. Retrieved April 28, 2015. 

External links[edit]