By Gene Lyons
Updated September 17, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

She loves me, she loves me not. It’s seemingly an odd theme for a murder mystery, much less for the latest novel in Tony Hillerman’s unique series of novels about the Navajo Tribal Police. But then, there has never been anything ordinary about Hillerman’s crisply plotted, magically evocative tales of crime and detection on the ”Big Rez” that sprawls across thousands of square miles of desert, mountain, and canyon in New Mexico and Arizona. Mingling taut, deceptively simple prose with shrewd psychological insight and a scholar’s understanding of Navajo culture and religion, novels like Skinwalkers and The Ghostway have transported Hillerman’s many readers to an enchanted world. Even devoted readers, however, will find Sacred Clowns (HarperCollins, $23) just a bit different from earlier books in the series. Essentially comic in structure and tone, the novel’s best effects depend upon a previous familiarity with Officer Jim Chee, Lieut. Joe Leaphorn, and their personal histories and quite distinctive approaches to solving crimes. Yes, there’s an ingenious murder mystery-involving two homicides, actually, occurring on the same day many miles apart, with one victim a white schoolteacher bludgeoned to death on the Navajo reservation, the other a Hopi tribal elder slain in the midst of a ritual dance at Tano Pueblo. Only young Chee and his new boss Leaphorn, reunited here and not at all sure they’ll be able to get along, suspect that the killings may be connected. As usual, solving them will require not only ingenuity but knowledge of tribal ways unavailable to outsiders. But the novel’s real focus is on the two men’s edgy personal relationship and individual emotional needs. Indeed, the most diverting scene in Sacred Clowns takes place at a drive-in movie in Gallup, N.M. It seems that John Ford’s classic Cheyenne Autumn has returned to the theater, and Officer Chee has a date with his sweetheart, Janet Pete, a Stanford-educated Navajo raised in a city far from the tribe’s ancestral home. Unfortunately, Chee also has a visitor, a cop named Harold Blizzard from the Bureau of Indian Affairs-himself a Cheyenne reared in Chicago and recently arrived in New Mexico. They make an odd threesome. A fish out of water, Blizzard has no more idea of how to carry out a homicide investigation among the Navajos and Hopis than an Irish cop in Brazil. Watching the movie together only complicates things. Featuring Navajo actors pretending to be Cheyenne, the movie has a cult following in the area rather like The Rocky Horror Picture Show-essentially because the Navajo extras got the best of Hollywood, delivering somber- sounding speeches full of bawdy double entendres in their own language. Sitting between the bewildered BIA cop and his only somewhat less mystified sweetheart and trying to explain, Chee feels acutely one of the most puzzling dilemmas of his life. As to the question raised by the Navajo perspective on Cheyenne Autumn- whether tribal detectives like Leaphorn and Chee actually exist, pondering ethical and religious conundrums unique to their culture as they investigate murders-the correct answer would seem to be, What difference does it make? Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character too. A-