Where Do They Find So Many O’Malleys?

Tony Hillerman

One consistent theme in the magnificent mystery novels of Tony Hillerman is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI has jurisdiction over all murders on federal reservations, but the Navaho Tribal Police do all the legwork. And the FBI never tells anyone anything, especially not the Navaho Tribal Police.

This is a funny passage from Dance Hall of the Dead, one of Hillerman’s best books. The only way Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navaho Tribal Police knows that drugs are involved in a homicide he’s working on is because a guy has bad teeth.

Leaphorn is at a briefing with a typical FBI agent named O’Malley:

“Leaphorn found his attention diverted again.  Why, he was thinking, were FBI agents so often exactly like O’Malley? He saw that the white man who sat beside O’Malley had noticed the eyebrow gesture, had interpreted it for exactly what it was, and was grinning at Leaphorn a friendly, sympathetic, lopsided grin.

“This man was maybe fifty, with a pink, freckled, sagging, hound-dog face and a shock of sandy hair. O’Malley had introduced him simply as ‘Agent Baker.’ As O’Malley must have intended, this left the impression that Baker was another FBI agent. It had occurred to Leaphorn earlier that Baker was not, in fact, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He didn’t look like one. He had bad teeth, irregular and discolored, an an air of casual sloppiness,  and something about him which suggested a quick, inquisitive, impatient intelligence.

“Leaphorn’s extensive experience with the FBI suggested that any of these three characteristics would prevent employment.”

[So Baker must be from the Drug Enforcement Agency.]

“The FBI people always seemed to be O’Malleys — trimmed, scrubbed, tidy, able to work untroubled by any special measure of intelligence. O’Malley was still talking. Leaphorn looked at him, wondering about this FBI policy. Where did they find so many O’Malleys?

“He had a sudden vision of an office in the Department of Justice building in Washington, a clerk sending out draft notices to all the male cheerleaders and drum majors at USC, Brigham Young, Arizona State, and Notre Dame, ordering them to get their hair cut and report for duty.”