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In appreciation of Tony Hillerman

By / October 27, 2008



"Tony Hillerman's place alongside such great mystery writers as Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is certain," wrote Monitor Book editor Jim Bencivenga in 1997. Today, as readers worldwide mourn Hillerman's death at the age of 83, there are many who would agree.

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Hillerman wrote "lyrical, authentic and compelling mystery novels set among the Navajos of the Southwest," books that "blazed innovative trails in the American detective story," writes Marilyn Stasio in an obituary in today's International Herald Tribune. "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."

Hillerman's childhood prepared him well for the books that would eventually make him famous. Born in Sacred Heart, Okla., in 1925, he grew up surrounded by native Americans and their culture. Eventually he landed in New Mexico, where he worked as a journalist till the age of 40 when, restless, he decided to try  his hand at writing fiction.

It was in 1970 that "The Blessing Way" was published. It became the first in a series of 18 Hillerman novels set on Southwest Indian reservations in which Lieut. Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police ply their trade even as they illustrate the tension between traditional and contemporary mores.

"Jim Chee is young and savvy, but he has an educated affection for the Navajo way, with its religious rites and mythology. He also tends to be a loner on the job," wrote Mitch Finley in the Monitor's 1990 review of Hillerman's "Coyote Waits." "Joe Leaphorn, on the other hand, is a veteran cop thinking about retirement. He's sharp, experienced, and wise to the system, but he believes in playing by the rules. And he could care less about traditional religion."

Through Leaphorn and Chee, Hillerman introduced readers to a landscape of bold physical, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions.

In defending his contention that Hillerman ranked among the greats of the genre, Bencivenga wrote that there are three reasons Hillerman's tales of Leaphorn and Chee surpass the stories of ordinary mystery writers.

"First, Hillerman is a master of style. His sentences are as lucid, yet subtle, as sunlight in the high desert where Navajo tribal detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee patrol. He creates a vivid, austere sense of place. Second, Hillerman probes the metaphysical implications of crime, religious taboo, and moral weakness in human nature. His point of view is always compassionate. He taps an innate hunger for justice and harmony. Third, Hillerman explores misunderstanding and conflict inherent in cross-cultural mores. This more than anything else sets him apart from mystery writers of his generation."

The concluding lines of Bencivenga's review of "The Fallen Man," provide a lovely epitaph for Hillerman's work. The book, he wrote, "ends in a quintessentially Hillerman manner. It satisfies the human hunger for justice. The ancient Greeks called this stasis. The Navajo call it harmony. Great literature can do no better."

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