Tony Hillerman, novelist, dies at 83
By Marilyn Stasio
Monday, October 27, 2008
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.
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," 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 our ways."
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 protagonist.
But beginning with "The Blessing Way" in 1970 the 18 novels Hillerman set on Southwest Indian reservations featuring Lieut. Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant 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," Hillerman's fifth novel, as a counterpoint to Leaphorn's cynicism.
Leaphorn and Chee appear in separate novels of 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 Hillerman knew so well.
In "Skinwalkers" (1986), 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, 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, Oklahoma, 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 Hillerman would later joke that "the Joads were the ones who had enough money to move to California."
"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, 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, Oklahoma; 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 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.
Hillerman is survived by his wife, Marie, and their six children.
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, New Mexico 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. Hillerman complied and credited 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 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 property."
When murder is the crime, the Indians in 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 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, Barney.
Within the narrow, specialized and frequently contentious world of mystery fiction, 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 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."