ONE OF the consistently superior -- and definitely distinctive -- mystery series of the last 15 years has come from Tony Hillerman. The Ghostway (Harper & Row, $13.95), which brings back Sergeant Jim Chee in this sixth outing with the Navajo Tribal Police, more than meets Hillerman's high standards. Even this early in 1985, it doesn't seem foolhardy to predict it will be one of the year's best.
The Ghostway is a tense mystery-thriller with the runaway action of a western. It is also a sympathetic, yet level-headed, examination of the clash of cultures and the anguish this can bring to two people sincerely in love. This is the overriding theme in this carefully-crafted book with the Hillerman hallmarks: pursuit over the desolate land of New Mexico, the beautifully-evoked sense of place with slopes of snakeweed and buffalo grass, great open spaces, arching skies, dazzling desert sunsets, and abrasive windblown sand, the background of Indian lore with tribal rituals, beliefs, singer's chants.
In The Ghostway, Chee takes one of his rare trips off the Navajo Big Reservation to travel to Los Angeles. There he learns that Albert and Leroy Gorman, two lapsed Navajos who have gone the white man's way in the big city, had been high-class car thiefs stealing Mercedes and Caddies on order for an importer to deliver overseas.
Albert had come back to the reservation, looking for his brother, when he was wounded in a shootout outside the local laundromat. He had driven away, leaving a dead hit man from Los Angeles.
Chee, assigned to the local FBI agent and told not to ask questions, tracks Albert's car to the abandoned hogan of his uncle, Hosteen (a title of respect for elders) Begay. The chimney is plugged, the single door sealed, and a "dark hole" chopped in the north side to let out the chindi, or evil spirit of the dead. Chee finds nearby Gorman's body laid out in ceremonial fashion, shoes reversed to confuse pursuers, cornmeal and water for a four-day journey to the underground world of the dead.
But why, Chee wonders, was not the corpse's hair washed in yucca suds for purification? And why had Hosteen Begay not taken his kinsman outside to die in the open rather than infect a hogan on a prime site near a meadow and stream?
Only a Navajo cop would pick up these clues, but Chee must tread carefully because of the secretive FBI agents. Again, it is Chee, the Navajo policeman, who thinks to ask about the cottonwood tree in a Polaroid snapshot. It leads him to the trailer where Albert's brother may be hiding. Yet the owner denies he is Leroy Gorman.
Chee gets some answers in Los Angeles, where he goes to find Hosteen Begay's 17- year-old runaway granddaughter before others get to her. Someone seems willing to kill to get the seemingly innocuous snapshot. In L.A., Chee learns that the Gorman brothers had been potential witnesses in a car- theft case that reaches to high levels. The Navajo Indian barely escapes a hired hit man -- ruthless, efficient, amoral, a chilling portrait -- and only with the help of Margaret, the runaway granddaughter.
In one memorable, touching vignette, Chee patiently, and tenderly, extracts information from a bright old man, frustrated at his stroke-limited ability to communicate what he knows about Albert Gorman.
The trail takes Chee back to the reservation for a corker of a confrontation with the villains. It comes at a ghostway -- a five-day curing ceremony for Margaret after her exposure to the evil spirit in the hogan where Gorman died. Chee, again with Margaret to the rescue, must face the vicious hit man and another villain who has slipped into their midst under a false identify.
UNIVERSITY-EDUCATED Chee, who has chosen to stay with his people and is studying tribal rituals, is constantly tugged between the Navajo and white man's way.
Hillerman catches the quandary as Chee hesitates outside the deserted hogan and debates whether to enter to search for evidence: "To the Jim Chee who was an alumnus of the University of New Mexico, subscriber to Esquire and Newsweek, an officer of the Navajo Tribal Police, lover of Mary Landon, holder of a Farmington Public Library card, student of anthropolgy and sociology, 'with distinction' graduate of the FBI Academy, holder of Social Security card 441-28-7272, it was a logical step to take."
Yet this Chee is also a Navajo taught to avoid chindis, the evil spirits that inhabit hogans if people die there:
"But from this talus slope, in the dying light, the dead stillness of this autumn evening, the rationality of the universe was canceled."
Throughout his investigation and pursuit, Chee is haunted by his quarrel with Mary Landon, the white teacher at one of the reservation schools, who was introduced in an earlier Hillerman novel. For both Chee and Landon, their love has deepened. He sees only Mary as the mother of his children. She wants him to take a job with the FBI, leave the reservation, and send their future children to better schools.
There are times when Chee sounds self- righteous in his disdain for the white man's ways. The Navajos, he observes at one point, do not hide people away in hospitals to die. Yet he embraces the belief that takes a mortally ill man out of his house to die in the open to avoid contagion of his evil spirit. It is an irony that Hillerman, in his respectful and unremitting admiration for the Navajo way, probably never intended.
Mary, who appears only in Chee's thoughts in The Ghostway, has asked him: "What gives you the right to be so superior?" In the end, she returns to Wisconsin, leaving a note that she needs time to think but has decided "not to force my Jim Chee to be a white man."
N.J. McIVER'S Come Back, Alice Smythereene! (St. Martin's, $12.95) has a few antic moments among much silliness in a heavy- handed attempt at light-hearted mystery/comedy. Alice, the author of torrid romance novels with much heavy breathing, is really Arnold Simon, an underpaid professor-poet. His agent has set up a model to front for Arnold. When Alice (that is, the model) disappears, Arnold, a pale imitation of a Woody Allen hero, gets involved in mob shenanigans.
The editor of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine has written a dandy one herself. In Carol in the Dark (Walker, $13.95), Cathleen Jordan has crafted a sprightly mystery from a treasure hunt, the setting of a small South Dakota university town, and some unusual characters, including members of the Close Company of Perfect Strangers. She writes with both wit and learning.
John Lutz has come up with a new ploy to mark the return of his St. Louis private eye, Alo Nudger, in Nightlines (St. Martin's, $13.95). Is some serial murderer using the "night lines" -- the special numbers of telephone repairmen tapped at night by lonely and kinky people -- to set up victims for bathtub slashings?
Lutz has some overexposed characters such as the manipulative mother, the good- and-bad twins, and the ex-wife demanding alimony. But Nudger, with his nervous stomach, is not without appeal, and Lutz writes crisply.
Ray Harrison brings 19th-century London back again with his stalwart sleuths, Detective Sergeant Bragg and the upper-class Constable Morton as they investigate Death of an Honourable Member (Scribner's, $11.95). Was an eminent member of Parliament pushed down the stairs to his death? This is a lively mystery by gaslight and the second (preceded by Who Killed Arthur Potter?) in what is turning into a delightful series of period pieces.