Some high-sounding prose in appreciation of Tony Hillerman. “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.
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.”
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.”
I would add that his books were just plain fun to read