October 28, 2008
Tony Hillerman, Novelist, Dies at 83
By MARILYN STASIO
Tony Hillerman, whose lyrical, authentic and compelling mystery
novels set among the Navajos of the Southwest blazed innovative
trails in the American detective story, died Sunday at Presbyterian
Hospital in Albuquerque, The Associated Press reported.
He was 83 and lived in Albuquerque.
The cause was pulmonary failure, according to the AP report.
Mr. Hillerman's evocative novels, which describe people struggling
to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world, touched millions
of readers, who made them best sellers. But although the themes of
his books were not overtly political, he wrote with a purpose, he
often said, and that purpose was to instill in his readers a respect
for Indian culture. The plots of his stories, while steeped in
contemporary crime and its consequences, were invariably instructive
about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals
for a soldier returned from a foreign war to incest taboos for a
proper clan marriage.
"It's always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of
these rich Indian cultures," Mr. Hillerman once told Publishers
Weekly. "I think it's important to show that aspects of ancient
Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to
Mr. Hillerman was not the first mystery writer to set a story on
Indian land or to introduce a full-blooded Native American detective
to crime literature. In 1946 the grand prize in the first short-
story competition of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine went to Manly
Wade Wellman for the first of two stories he wrote with an Indian
But beginning with "The Blessing Way" in 1970 the 18 novels Mr.
Hillerman set on Southwest Indian reservations featuring Lieut. Joe
Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, brought a
new dimension to the character of the traditional genre hero.
Joe Leaphorn, seasoned and a bit cynical, has a logical mind and a
passion for order that reflects his upbringing in the Navajo Way.
His code of behavior is dictated by a belief in the ordered,
harmonious patterns of life that link man to the natural world. But
he is not a fundamentalist in terms of religion; the grizzled
skeptic is the holder of a master's degree in anthropology.
Younger and more idealistic than his pragmatic fellow police
officer, Jim Chee seeks a more spiritual connection to Navajo
tradition. Over the course of several books, he studies to become a
hataalii, a singer or medicine man. This ambition often creates
friction between the religious faith he professes and the secular
rules of criminal justice he is sworn to uphold. Chee first appears
in "People of Darkness," Mr. Hillerman's fifth novel, as a
counterpoint to Leaphorn's cynicism.
Leaphorn and Chee appear in separate novels of Mr. Hillerman's
Navajo Tribal Police series , each novel challenging them with a
crime that seems to be entangled in the spirit world yet at the same
time starkly rooted in the modern reservation life Mr. Hillerman
knew so well.
In "Skinwalkers" (1986), Mr. Hillerman first brought Leaphorn and
Chee together on the same case to offer a fascinating interplay of
two different representatives of Navajo culture. In "Skinwalkers,"
the police officers investigate three murders on the reservation
linked only by pellets of bone associated with the murder weapons.
Is this an indication that the murders are the work of skinwalkers,
witches who can fly and take the shapes of dogs, wolves or other
animals? Leaphorn hates witchcraft and holds superstition,
unemployment and whisky responsible for much of the suffering
endured by his people. But Chee knows the power of forces the
science of the white man cannot explain. The detectives blend their
special views of the world to solve the case.
In addition to his complex heroes, Mr. Hillerman also wrote
compassionately and with intimate knowledge of a great range of
clansmen from the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes, people with whom he
felt a deep affinity because he grew up among those very much like
them. "When I met the Navajo I now so often write about, I
recognized kindred spirits," he wrote in an autobiographical essay
in 1986. "Country boys. Folks among whom I felt at ease."
Anthony Grove Hillerman was born May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart,
Okla., to August Alfred Hillerman, a farmer and shopkeeper, and his
wife, Lucy Grove. The town was in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and the
family's circumstances were so mean that Mr. Hillerman would later
joke that "the Joads were the ones who had enough money to move to
"In Sacred Heart, being a storyteller was a good thing to be," he
said of his country village, which had no television and was 35
miles from the nearest library. Growing up on territorial lands of
the Potawatomie Tribe, he went to St. Mary's Academy, a school for
Indian girls run by the Sisters of Mercy, and attended high school
with Potawatomie children. He maintained throughout his life Indian
friendships that he credited for much of the veracity of his stories.
"I cross-examine my Navajo friends and shamelessly hang around
trading posts, police substations, rodeos, rug auctions and sheep
dippings," he once wrote of his research methods.
After attending Oklahoma A&M College, he enlisted in the Army in
World War II. In two years of combat in Europe, Mr. Hillerman said,
his company of 212 rifleman shrank to 8 survivors as they fought
their way through France. In 1945 in a raid behind German lines he
stepped on a concussive mine. His left leg was shattered and he was
severely burned; he never regained full vision in his left eye.
During a long hospital convalescence he said he got caught up
in "the world's greatest, longest, Guinness Book of Records poker
game," which came to an end only when the head nurse, outraged that
the players would not even stop to attend a memorial service for
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, confiscated their cards.
He returned from Europe in 1945 with the Silver Star, the Bronze
Star and the Purple Heart. He picked up his studies, this time at
the University of Oklahoma where he met and married Marie Unzner, a
Phi Beta Kappa student in bacteriology, and took up a career in
journalism. He was a crime reporter for The Borger News-Herald in
the Texas Panhandle; city editor of The Morning Press-Constitution
in Lawton, Okla.; a political reporter in Oklahoma City, and later
bureau manager in Santa Fe for United Press International and
executive editor of The Santa Fe New Mexican.
At that point Mr. Hillerman and his wife had one child and adopted
five more. He was almost 40 and had put in 17 years as a
newspaperman. But he was becoming restless.
"The yen builds to work in something more malleable than hard fact,
an urge grows to try to deal with the meaning of all this," he said.
So with his wife's support he quit The New Mexican and the family
pulled up stakes and moved to Albuquerque, where he enrolled at the
University of New Mexico. He earned his master's degree in 1966,
joined the university's journalism faculty, taught writing and
ethnic courses and became chairman of the journalism department.
Increasingly fascinated with Indian culture, he also became
something of an authority on the Southwest.
Mr. Hillerman is survived by his wife, Marie, and their six
In the late 1960's he began to "practice" writing by working on a
mystery. "I thought, `Wouldn't it be wonderful to work in plastic
instead of flint; make your own imagination drive the writing.'"
When he had returned home on convalescent leave from the Army he
came upon a group of Navajos on horseback and in face paint and
feathers in Crownpoint, N.M. They were holding a Navajo Enemy Way
ceremony, a curing ritual for a soldier just like himself just back
from the war. The ritual exorcises all traces of the enemy from
those returning from battle.
He was moved by the ceremony and by the Navajos — "I'm drawn to
people who believe in something enough that their lives are affected
by it" — and stirred by the vastness of the country to the extent
that he resolved to live there. The experience became the basis
for "The Blessing Way."
He spent three years writing the novel and sent the manuscript
directly to Joan Kahn, a fabled mystery editor at Harper & Row. She
responded with a detailed critique of the book, which included
advice to beef up the role of a secondary character, the Navajo
Tribal policeman Joe Leaphorn as well as an offer to publish it. Mr.
Hillerman complied and credited Ms. Kahn for starting his career.
He departed from Indian themes for his second book, "The Fly on the
Wall" (1971), a story of big-city corruption that featured a
political reporter. But he was already yearning to get back to the
country where all his other novels are set.
"I love the place," he wrote of the vast tribal lands that span the
northeast corner of Arizona and straddle the borders of New Mexico,
Utah, and Colorado. "I need only drive west from Shiprock and into
that great emptiness to feel my spirit lift."
That aching passion for place becomes palpable in Mr. Hillerman's
soaring descriptive prose. Immersing himself in settings like Canyon
de Chelly, he would "collect" sensory impressions that surfaced in
his deeply felt evocations of "the way the wind sounds down there,
the nature of echoes, the smell of sage and wet sand, how the sky
looks atop a tunnel of stone, the booming of thunder bouncing from
one cliff to another."
"When I'm writing it's essential for me to have in my mind a memory
of the landscape," he once said. "So I tend to go around looking for
locations like a movie director."
The lyrical descriptions in a Hillerman mystery are always germane
to the story because they illustrate how violent crime disrupts the
harmonious Navajo world. "Everything is connected," Jim Chee
reflects in "Ghostway" (1984). "The wing of the corn beetle affects
the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the
light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is
part of totality, and in this totality man finds his hozro, his way
of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him."
In the same way, the particular nature of a crime, from grave
robbery to murder, always reflects the aspect of Navajo culture that
it offends. "Navajos did not kill with cold-blooded premeditation,"
readers learn in "The Blessing Way." "Nor did they kill for profit.
To do so violated the scale of values of The People. Beyond meeting
simple immediate needs, the Navajo Way placed little worth on
When murder is the crime, the Indians in Mr. Hillerman's books find
it easier to attribute such an act to witches, a superstition that
horrifies the rational Joe Leaphorn but makes sense to Jim Chee, who
sees witchcraft metaphorically, "in people who had turned
deliberately and with malice from the beauty of the Navajo Way and
embraced the evil that was its opposite... in those who sold whisky
to children, in those who bought videocassette recorders while their
relatives were hungry, in the knife fights in a Gallup alley, in
beaten wives and abandoned children."
The vividly impressionistic quality of Mr. Hillerman's writing
spilled out from the novels and into nonfiction works about the land
he loved, including "Indian Country: America's Sacred Land" (1987),
with photographs by Bela Kalman; "New Mexico, Rio Grande, and Other
Essays" (1992), with photographs by David Muench and Robert
Reynolds, and "Hillerman Country: A Journey through the Southwest
with Tony Hillerman" (1991), with photographs by his elder brother,
Within the narrow, specialized and frequently contentious world of
mystery fiction, Mr. Hillerman was that rare figure, a best-selling
author who was adored by his fans, admired by his fellow authors,
respected by literary critics and universally liked for his personal
modesty and legendary professional generosity. Formal honors came
his way with his third book, "Dance Hall of the Dead" ( 1973), which
won the Mystery Writers of America's 1974 Edgar Allan Poe Award for
Best Mystery Novel.
"Skinwalkers," which is generally considered his breakthrough book,
won the Western Writers of America's Golden Spur Award in 1987. In
1991, after solidifying the Navajo Tribal Police series with "A
Thief of Time" (his own favorite novel), "Talking God" and "Coyote
Waits," he received the Mystery Writers of America's highest honor,
its Grandmaster Award.
The recognition that gladdened him most, however, was the status of
Special Friend of the Dineh conferred on him in 1987 by the Navajo
Nation for his honest, accurate portrayal of Navajo people and their
culture. It was also a special source of pride to him that his books
are taught on reservation high schools and colleges.
"Good reviews delight me when I get them," he once said. "But I am
far more delighted by being voted the most popular author by the
students of St. Catherine Indian school, and even more by middle-
aged Navajos who tell me that reading my mysteries revived their
children's interest in the Navajo Way."
Although some critics took Mr. Hillerman to task for humorless
moralizing and for the reverential attitude with which he favored
his Indian characters, none faulted the flawless construction of his
classic plots or the sheer power of his storyteller's voice.
"It seems to me that I am writing what Graham Greene
called `entertainments,"` he once said. "My readers are buying a
mystery, not a tome of anthropology." While the praise heaped on the
authenticity of his novels pleased him, he insisted, "The name of
the game is telling stories."
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