A THIEF OF TIME; Tony Hillerman; Harper & Row; $15.95.

A new novel by Tony Hillerman always deserves special "attention." I hesitate to use the word "review" because reviewing mystery novels can be bad for one's reputation. Without extreme care, one can be equated with the infamous twit who habitually blurts out the punch line while someone else is telling a good joke.I've never been a fan of mystery novels. So the fact that I wouldn't miss a Hillerman novel should say something about his power as a storyteller. He adroitly overcomes the inherent drawbacks of the mystery genre by focusing the reader's attention on the flesh of the story, its characters and setting, rather than on the skeletal cleverness of his plot.

That's not to say that his stories aren't clever or intricate enough to satisfy the consummate suspense addict. "A Thief of Time" may be his finest mystery.

Again, as with his previous novel "Skinwalkers," "Thief" features both of Hillerman's Navajo tribal policemen, Officer Jim Chee and Lt. Joe Leaphorn. (Usually one or the other has been the protagonist of his earlier books.) Hillerman deftly contrasts the traditionalist Chee, a Hatathali, Singer of the Blessing Way, with the pragmatist Leaphorn who harbors a professional disdain for his culture's "superstitions." Each perspective lends its strength to the investigative procedures.

Leaphorn searches for a missing archaeologist, Professor Eleanor Friedman-Bernal, who he seems compelled by circumstances to liken to his recently deceased wife. Chee seeks the thief of a backhoe from the department yard he was supposed to be guarding. The fallibilities of each officer reveal their humanity and draw the reader into their lives.

The two investigations become linked by a double murder and a southern Utah county commissioner. If this sounds like a typical mystery lead, pointing its finger toward recent headlines about Anasazi pot snatchers, so be it. A "Thief of Time" is contemporary.

But Hillerman's fiction transcends popular exploitation and the usual few hours of engrossed entertainment. He writes with a naturalist's eye for detail and relationships, a fact that has developed an audience far larger than lovers of mysteries. By paying brief attention to a dust storm over Black Mesa, the stark silhouette of the Carrizo Mountains, a tortuous dirt road, the icy water of the San Juan River, he develops a cumulative but unobtrusive strength of setting and sense of place. The reader absorbs the Navajo Reservation through the pores, rather than through conscious effort.

It is this same naturalistic attention to seemingly superfluous detail and relationships that make Leaphorn and Chee successful investigators. Upon returning to a ravaged archaeological site, where the Chindi, or leftover evil of the dead Anasazi, had previously overwhelmed Chee ("too many bones"), but he notices a particular arrangement of jawbones, a trivial but significant detail.

Leaphorn and Chee have both recently lost their female companions, Leaphorn to cancer and Chee to cultural relativism. This sense of loss is an appropriate undercurrent to a novel that deals with the loss of cultural heritage, indeed a loss of history.

These undercurrents are what make Hillerman's books worth more than a quick and casual read. One wants to savor the experience, but at the same time the tension is always compelling enough to make one want to race through the story. It is a rare novel that is worth rereading. Most mysteries seem weightless, once the suspense is gone. But if "A Thief of Time" robs the reader of the few hours it takes for a second reading, the time is well spent.