"I always try to make the setting fit the story I have in mind." -- Tony Hillerman
Tony Hillerman (May 27, 1925 - October 26, 2008) was an award-winning American author of detective novels and non-fiction works best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels. Some of his works were made into big-screen and television movies.
"Although I wasn't able to get a visa for Vietnam, I was able to talk with swift boat veterans to get a feel for the time and place, and I visited a tropical prison in the Philippines to get a sense of what a Vietnamese prison might have been like.""An author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.""Being Indian is not blood as much as it is culture.""Having grown up in Oklahoma when it was one of the last states which prohibited liquor, I grew up with War On Drugs, where every teenager knew who the bootleggers were.""How can you stop writing?""I always have one or two, sometimes more, Navajo or other tribes' cultural elements in mind when I start a plot. In Thief of Time, I wanted to make readers aware of Navajo attitude toward the dead, respect for burial sites.""I am 82 years old. I imagine that I will keep on writing as long as anyone wants to keep reading.""I know what I write about seems exotic to a lot of people, but not for me. I pulled up to an old trading post and saw a few elderly Navajos sitting on a bench. I felt right at home.""I try to make my books reflect humanity as I see it.""The essays in The Great Taos Bank Robbery were my project to win a Master of Arts degree in English when I quit being a newspaper editor and went back to college.""Women are extremely important shapers of my own life.""You write for two people, yourself and your audience, who are usually better educated and at least as smart."
Anthony Grove Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, and was a decorated combat veteran of World War II, having served as a mortarman in the 103rd Infantry Division and having earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. He worked as a journalist from 1948 to 1962, then earned a master's degree. He taught journalism from 1966 to 1987 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he resided with his wife until his death in 2008. Hillerman, a consistently bestselling author, was ranked as New Mexico's 22nd wealthiest man in 1996.
Hillerman wrote 18 books in his Navajo series and he wrote more than 30 books total, among them a memoir and books about the Southwest, its beauty and its history. His literary honors were awarded for his Navajo books. He was also awarded the Parris Award (named in honor of Parris Afton Bonds) by Southwest Writer's Workshop for his outstanding service to other writers. Hillerman books have been translated into eight languages, among them Danish and Japanese.
Hillerman's writing is noted for the cultural details he provides for the people he writes about: Hopi, Zuni, European-American, federal agents, and especially Navajo Tribal Police. His works in nonfiction and in fiction reflect his appreciation of the natural wonders of the American Southwest and his appreciation of its people, particularly the Navajo.
His mystery novels are set in the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona, sometimes reaching into Colorado and Utah and beyond, sometimes to Washington, DC, Los Angeles and other areas. The protagonists are Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo tribal police. Lt. Leaphorn was introduced in Hillerman's first novel, The Blessing Way (1970). The second book in the series, Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), won a 1974 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel. In 1991, Hillerman received the MWA's Grand Master Award. Hillerman has also received the Nero Award (for Coyote Waits) and the Navajo Tribe's Special Friends of the Dineh Award.
Hillerman repeatedly acknowledged his debt to an earlier series of mystery novels written by the British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield and set among tribal aborigines in remote desert regions of tropical and subtropical Australia. The Upfield novels appeared first in 1928 and featured a half-European, half-aboriginal Australian hero, Detective-inspector Napoleon Bonaparte who worked with deep understanding of tribal traditions. The character was based on the real-life achievements of an aborigine known as Tracker Leon whom Upfield had met during his years in the Australian bush.
Hillerman discussed his debt to Upfield in many interviews and in his introduction to the posthumous 1984 reprint of Upfield's A Royal Abduction. In the introduction he described the seductive appeal of the descriptions in Upfield's crime novels. It was descriptions both of the harsh outback areas and of "the people who somehow survived upon them" that lured him. "When my own Jim Chee of the Navaho 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 made 50 years ago."
Hillerman died on October 26, 2008, of pulmonary failure in Albuquerque at the age of 83.
There are a number of themes and elements common to many or all of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries. Many of them focus on the different attitudes that Leaphorn and Chee take toward Navajo religion. Leaphorn is somewhat skeptical of tradition, although he takes seriously reports of witchcraft. He does not believe in witches, but following a murder-suicide early in his career in which a man killed three people he believed to be skinwalkers, Leaphorn believes that belief in witches can be a problem. Chee takes a more traditional Navajo worldview, believing in the power of traditional singers and other rituals; however, he has come to take a more figurative or symbolic view of chindi, Navajo ghosts. Leaphorn does respect tradition though. "While Leaphorn was no longer truly a traditional," said Hillerman in Hunting Badger (1999, page 44), "he still treasured the old ways of his people."
In many novels, Leaphorn and/or Chee investigate reports of witchcraft or other supernatural events, often while at the same time investigating seemingly unrelated crimes of a more ordinary sort. In many cases the two are related, the supernatural events being staged as a way to cover up the other crimes.
Many novels also explore the interaction of traditional Navajo culture with the bilagáana, or white man; Chee, especially, sees this assimilation as destroying Navajo culture and making it difficult for many to fit into either world. In particular, several characters are "Relocation Navajos," raised in Los Angeles after a government program relocated them in the 1930s.
One concept that crops up in most of the Hillerman novels is the Navajo idea of hózhó (or xojo). This refers to beauty, harmony, and the interconnectedness of the natural world. The crime in a Hillerman novel is a synecdoche for that which destroys hozho. In addition to "white" versus "Navajo" culture, Hillerman often explores differences in social status in white society. For example, many wealthy antagonists feel that the status brought by their money allows them to do certain things that would be considered immoral. Some of the lower class antagonists feel jealousy and a desire to be seen as equals. This may come from Hillerman's experiences growing up poor in rural Oklahoma where he viewed everyone as an equal until he was exposed to the class system during his World War II service.
Following the Navajo tradition of giving names based on personal attributes, Hillerman often refers to unnamed characters by descriptive nicknames. For example, a man wearing gold-rimmed glasses is called "Goldrims" until he is given a name later in the book; a boy wearing a Superman sweatshirt, a boy who is the grandson of a man under investigation, is called "Supergrandson." A murder victim is referred to as "Pointed Shoes" even after the body is identified.
The Joe Leaphorn Mysteries: Three Classic Hillerman Mysteries Featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn: The Blessing Way, Dance Hall of the Dead, Listening Woman (1989) ISBN 0-06-016174-4
The Jim Chee Mysteries: Three Classic Hillerman Mysteries Featuring Officer Jim Chee: People of Darkness, The Dark Wind, The Ghostway (1990) ISBN 0-06-016478-6 The first appearance of Jim Chee in the Leaphorn-Chee series is in People of Darkness. In these three books, Joe Leaphorn is only briefly mentioned once, as "Captain Leaphorn at the Chinle substation" (POD, ch. 6). In the later books, where he is again prominent along with Jim Chee, he is "Lieutenant Leaphorn."
Tony Hillerman: Three Jim Chee Mysteries: People of Darkness, The Dark Wind, The Ghostway (1993) ISBN 0517092816
Leaphorn & Chee: Three Classic Mysteries Featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee : Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Talking God (1992) ISBN 0-06-016909-5
Leaphorn & Chee: Three Classic Mysteries Featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee: Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Talking God (2001) ISBN 0-06-018789-1
Tony Hillerman: The Leaphorn & Chee Novels: Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits (2005) ISBN 0-06-075338-2
Tony Hillerman: Leaphorn, Chee, and More: The Fallen Man, The First Eagle, Hunting Badger (2005) ISBN 0-06-082078-0
The Fly on the Wall (1971) ISBN 0-06-011897-0
Finding Moon (1995) ISBN 0-06-017772-1
The Boy Who Made Dragonfly (for children) (1972) ISBN 0-06-022312-X
Buster Mesquite's Cowboy Band (for children) (1973) ISBN 0914001116
About Hillerman, non-fiction, by author
Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir by Tony Hillerman (2001) ISBN 0-06-019445-6
The Great Taos Bank Robbery (1973) ISBN 0-8263-0306-4
The Spell of New Mexico (1976) ISBN 0-8263-0420-6
Indian Country (1987) ISBN 0-87358-432-5
Talking Mysteries (with Ernie Bulow) (1991) ISBN 0-8263-1279-9
The Tony Hillerman Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to His Life and Work by Hillerman, Martin Greenberg (1994) ISBN 0-06-017034-4
The Oxford book of American Detective Stories (1996) ISBN 0-19-508581-7
Canyon De Chelly (1998) ISBN 1893205258
Best American Mysteries of the Century (2000) ISBN 0-618-06757-4
Best of the Western anthology of classic writing from the America West (1991) ISBN 0-06-016664-9
New Omnibus of Crime (2005) ISBN 0195182146
The Mysterious West (1995) ISBN 0-06-017785-3
About Hillerman, non-fiction, by others
Tony Hillerman's Navajoland: Hideouts, Haunts and Havens in the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Mysteries by Laurance D. Linford, Tony Hillerman (2001) ISBN 0-87480-698-4
Tony Hillerman's Indian Country Map & Guide, first edition by Time Traveler Maps by Tony Hillerman (1998) ISBN 1-892040-01-8
Tony Hillerman's Indian Country Map & Guide, second edition by Time Traveler Maps by Tony Hillerman (2003) ISBN 1-892040-10-7
The Ethnic Detective by Peter Freese - including a detailed analysis of Listening Woman
Tony Hillerman: A Critical Companion (Critical Companions to Popular Contemporary Writers) by John M. Reilly (1996) ISBN 978-0313294167
Books of Photos
Kilroy Was There (2004) ISBN 0873388070
Hillerman Country (1991) ISBN 0-06-016400-X
Indian Country: America's Sacred Land Bela Kalman (text by Hillerman) (1987) ISBN 0873584325
Rio Grande Robert Reynolds (text by Hillerman) (1975) ISBN 0-912856-18-1
New Mexico Photography by David Muench (text by Hillerman) (1975) ISBN 0-912856-14-9