Tony Hillerman was an American author of detective novels and nonfiction works and known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels.
He was not a Native American. Tony Hillerman was born and raised in Oklahoma. He did not have Native American ancestors but attended elementary and high school with Potawatomi children and that certainly influenced him. Potawatomi people were from the Great Lakes area, but many Potawatomis were relocated to Kansas and Oklahoma during the Indian Removals that began in 1830. His writing took a different, sympathetic approach to the portrayal of Native Americans that is unfortunately not always been the case with non-native writers.
I started listening to his novels as audiobooks, but I had gone through earlier mystery novel phases in print. In high school and college, I was reading hardboiled, noirish classics by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and others and then I went to some more “literary” ones, such as those by Graham Greene.
I got into audiobooks in my teaching years and the attraction of listening to a book while driving or on my long walks has remained. Generally, I finished a book in less than two weeks – something I no longer am able to do reading on a page or screen.
I started borrowing cassette tapes from the library and listening in the car commuting to work. I worked my way through contemporary authors that had a number of books on the shelves – Ross MacDonald, the Sue Grafton alphabet, and Harlan Coben (who had been a student of mine.) And I discovered Tony Hillerman.
His novel The Blessing Way was the first book in his series of Navaho Reservation mysteries featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navaho Tribal Police and it was the first of his I read since I wanted to read them in order. The library had his first four novels on the shelf when I started.
In this novel, an anthropology professor is interested in Navajo witches and the role they play in the culture. As one might expect, there is a murder, but the corpse has a mouth full of sand and there are no other clues. Leaphorn, a modern law officer, still considers what he knows of his people and considers the possibility of a killer involved with the supernatural. The pursuit of a Wolf-Witch mixes mysticism and murder.
What I liked about the novel and the ones that I have read since is that I learned things about the cultures of the Navaho, Hopi, and Zuni and the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona. Most of these murder mysteries touch on the mystic aspects of the word.
I went on to the second book, Dance Hall of the Dead, which is about the disappearance of two Native-American boys who “vanish into thin air” leaving a pool of blood behind.
One of the boys is a Zuñi and the laws and sacred religious rites of the Zuñi people are a mystery in themselves and not to be revealed to others which impedes the case.
Tony Hillerman was a decorated combat veteran of World War II, attended the University of Oklahoma, married and have one biological child and five adopted children.
He worked as a journalist, but in 1966, he moved his family to Albuquerque, where he earned a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico. He patterned his fictional Joe Leaphorn on a sheriff he knew from Texas. He started writing novels while teaching journalism at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. That is where he lived with his wife of 60 years until his death in 2008.
18 of his 30+ books are in his Navajo detective series. Joe Leaphorn was eventually partnered with the younger Jim Chee who was introduced in the fourth novel, People of Darkness. The two first work together in the seventh novel, one of the best in the series, Skinwalkers.
Although Hillerman credits Eric Ambler, Graham Greene, and Raymond Chandler as influences, his main influence did not come from those popular writers. He credits the mysteries by British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield. I’ve never read any of them but they are set among tribal Australian Aborigines in remote desert regions of tropical and subtropical Australia. Upfield’s indigenous character and the harsh Outback geography are much like “Hillerman country.”
Hillerman said, “When my own Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police unravels a mystery because he understands the ways of his people, when he reads the signs in the sandy bottom of a reservation arroyo, he is walking in the tracks Bony [Upfield’s protagonist] made 50 years ago.”
This fall I returned to Hillerman country and started listening to the novels where I think left off years ago with book #11, Sacred Clown. It begins with the murder of a scared clown being killed at a Tano kachina ceremony. The brutal bludgeoning is the same as what happened to a reservation schoolteacher who was killed just days before. The book gets into the closely guarded tribal secrets and also crooked Indian traders, in sacred artifacts.
“Mystery” has an interesting etymology. Though today we mostly think of it as a fiction genre, in Middle English it had more of a sense of a mystic presence. It was associated with hidden religious symbolism. It comes from Old French mistere and before that Latin mysterium and Greek mustērion. Hillerman’s novels, in using the beliefs of native peoples, come closer to the mystic sense than most modern mystery stories.