On American Soil 

For the first time in its history, PBS’ Mystery! series moves beyond Britcrime

For the first time in its history, PBS’ Mystery! series moves beyond Britcrime

PBS viewers will notice something different about Sunday’s episode of Mystery!, right from the opening credits, as red, white and blue are all over the signature animation. There’s not a septuagenarian spinster, obsessive-compulsive super-sleuth or cup of tea to be found in Skinwalkers, An American Mystery! Special, the two-hour movie airing 8 p.m. Nov. 24 on NPT-Channel 8. Based on a 1986 Tony Hillerman novel, this pet project of executive producer Robert Redford is the first in the series’ 22 years to be set on American soil. The plot involves murders with a supernatural twist on a Navajo reservation; you couldn’t get much farther from Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead if you’d set the story on Mars.

In the great tradition of detective stories, Skinwalkers features a crime-fighting team. Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi from The Last of the Mohicans and Dances With Wolves) is the weathered, embittered detective just in from a big-city police force. He seems at odds with his Native American heritage and is prepared to tread all over the traditional ways of the reservation. This makes him a perfect foil to the young and idealistic officer Jim Chee (Adam Beach from Windtalkers and Smoke Signals). Leaphorn isn’t the most patient of men, yet he accommodates Chee’s concerns as an apprentice healer by declaring him “spiritually exempt” from certain tasks. We’re not told why Leaphorn has made the switch to the Navajo Tribal Police force, though we can assume his wife favors the move. She seems to be in the movie only to counter Leaphorn’s gruffness by serving coffee to anyone he might offend. She’s almost too calm—is she sick, is she pregnant?

Hillerman aims for an accurate portrayal of Navajo culture in his books; onscreen, we get turquoise jewelry and prairie skirts, views of the rugged Western landscape and references to the tribal council. This often makes for something only slightly more convincing than Southwestern-tinged episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Screenwriter Jamie Redford has updated Hillerman’s 16-year-old story to include modern policing techniques—not that watching people type into a computer or look at Web sites makes for great TV. Still, Skinwalkers is entertaining; it’s creepy, suspenseful and includes a classic mystery premise. By the end of the two hours, however, we haven’t learned enough about the characters to want to see more of them. While Hillerman fans have already developed a relationship with the detectives over the course of 13 books, Leaphorn and Chee need to be more fully realized onscreen if they are to connect with PBS viewers. Fortunately, as portrayed by Studi and Beach, they have a head start.

—MiChelle Jones

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