People of Darkness Study Guide

People of Darkness

People of Darkness by Tony Hillerman

A bacteriologist in the cancer research hospital, waiting for lab results, sees a blond haired man move something from his car to a pick-up truck parked in an illegal space. She sees a tow truck pull the pick-up away; within seconds, the truck explodes, killing the operators of the tow truck. A few months later, Jim Chee is asked by Mrs. Vines to find a box stolen from her house, wanting to hire him off-duty. The box contains mementos and she would like it back before her husband returns; she thinks Emerson Charley is the thief.

Mr. Vines returns, telling Chee not to bother with the task his wife asked him to do. Sheriff Sena is angry at Chee for talking with Mr. and Mrs. Vines. Sena shares the story of the six Navajo men in the crew under Dillon Charley who did not go to work at the oil field years back because Charley had a vision saying something bad would happen that day, which was true. Chee learns that the man whose truck exploded a few months back was Emerson Charley, son of Dillon and head of the People of Darkness church, who has been in the hospital at the University of New Mexico since that day, ill with cancer. Sena believes the motion sensor bomb in the pick-up truck was meant for Emerson, despite his fatal disease.

When Colton Wolf learns about Emerson Charley’s death, he goes to the hospital morgue to find, steal and bury his body, which the cancer group wants to autopsy. At a local rug auction, Tomas Charley tells Jim Chee that his father’s body was stolen from the hospital. Tomas tells Chee where the stolen box is and that it contains rocks and military medals. Chee meets Mary Landon and asks her out. Next day, they go to fetch the box from the malpais, and encounter Tomas Charley’s dead body, killed a minute before. The killer is the same man who met Tomas at the rug auction after Chee did. Colton, the killer, does not like witnesses, sohe shoots Chee and sets fire to his vehicle.

Chee is recovering in the hospital after surgery for his gunshot wound, visited by a string of lawmen. Sheriff Sena is driven by the loss of his older brother in that oil field explosion. Sgt. Hunt of the Albuquerque Police Department tells Chee of the history of killings attached to the man who shot him. A sketch of his face from what the bacteriologist saw matches the face Chee saw. Martin from the FBI visits next. Knowing about this man and his methods proves useful when Chee awakens about 3 am to find he has a roommate, and that the blond haired man is in the hospital corridor. Chee hides in the false ceiling space, coming down to find that the other patient was killed by the silenced weapon in his stead, and the nurse is killed as well. Chee calls the Albuquerque Police, but they do not find the killer, who drives off in a stolen car.

Chee and Mary Landon research the events of the oil field explosion and what happened to the six Navajos who did not go to work that day. So far, four of the six died of leukemia and one of another cancer, within 5 years of the explosion, highly unusual. They hope to find the body of the sixth, to see what an autopsy might reveal. They realize that is why Emerson Charley’s body was stolen from the hospital.

Chee and Mary Landon learn where the sixth man is buried from his sister, up in the Bisti badlands. Colton pretends to the NTP that he is Martin, the FBI agent, so that the NTP will put out radio calls for Chee, which Colton can hear with his police band radio. Chee and Landon find the long-interred body of the sixth man, and can see abnormal bone growth on his skeleton below his pouch, still carrying the mole amulet. Chee puts a note on Colton’s car. The note is written on the check Vines gave Chee, saying that Vines will give Colton up to law enforcement. Chee tosses a boulder in his pick-up truck, which explodes from the bomb Colton placed in it. Colton drives away. Mary and Chee wait until daylight when a pipeline company helicopterrescues them. Chee reaches Vines mansion by helicopter just after Colton arrived through the heavy snows of the night. Colton kills Vines, and Mrs. Vines shoots Colton in self-defense.

Vines gave mole-shaped amulets to the six Navajo men on the crew, meant to symbolize their religion, but made of pitchblende. The radiation brought early death by cancer, as the men carried the amulets in a pouch worn on the body. Vines was not a newcomer to the area, but the geologist Carl Lebeck. Lebeck was not killed in the explosion because he rigged it. He revealed himself to Chee by what he failed to note on the reports 30 years earlier– uranium is being mined now, above the level where oil was expected in the core samples Lebeck analyzed, but was not noted. Vines did not want an active oil field in someone else’s ownership when he could make a fortune by buying the lease for the land and selling the rights for the uranium. That white man acted like Navajo witch, in a twist ending.

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