I do not remember when I first read a mystery by Tony Hillerman, but it was probably in the mid to late 1980s. I do remember that he quickly became one of my favorite authors, and I voraciously read all of his 18 novels* that feature Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, officers in the Navajo Tribal Police. He died in 2008 at the age of 83, and it seemed the many adventures of Chee and Leaphorn were over as well. Thus, realizing as I did over the holidays, that his daughter Anne had revived the characters in a new novel I was excited. Reading that new mystery brought back all the reasons why I loved Hillerman’s work.
Two of My Interests Are Integral to the Core of Hillerman’s Mysteries
I have always been fascinated with tribal cultures since I was kid. Back then, I liked Mingo better than Daniel Boone and Tonto better than the Lone Ranger. I rooted for the Indians in most westerns, and one of my favorite shows was Broken Arrow (repeated on Sunday afternoons 1959-1960). I applauded Dances with Wolves (1990) for giving a more thorough view of tribal life rather than just reactions to encroaching settlers, cowboys, and soldiers. But I also knew I did not really know much about Indian Cultures then and now, even if I read Linda Eldridge’s The Round House (1988) and Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993).
Hillerman’s novels allowed me to come to know and understand his key Navajo characters, initially Joe Leaphorn, then Jim Chee, and finally Bernie Manuelito as well as numerous other more ancillary characters. His works also immersed me into daily life on a reservation as well as the broader cultural and religious sensibilities of several tribes. His main focus was always Navajo, but he also explored Zuni and Hopi characters, history and teachings. I cannot claim to really know tribal culture from reading Hillerman’s novels, but I do have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the depth and complexity of Indian cultures and some key differences between tribes and the dominant white culture because of reading his novels.
Hillerman himself once explained both what he shared in his novels about the various tribes and why: “It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures. 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 presented these lessons about tribal cultures through the characters he created, primary and secondary, Indian and White, good and bad on all sides—the complexity of living was always at the heart his characters. The award he most prized and that impressed me since he is a white guy after all was being named Special Friend of the Dinee by the Navajo Nation (1987).
I have also always loved the landscapes and vistas of the Southwest, traveling there at least once a year through the 1990s. I am rejuvenated by the sights and sounds of the deserts and mountains, overwhelmed at times by the vibrant colors, and awed by the isolation (not loneliness) of the area. I have visited the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Chaco Canyon, have smelled the rains and enjoyed the sunsets, have attended a Pow Wow in Gallup, and have driven through cities such as Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Shiprock, and Tuba City. This area—this Indian Country that even has its own map from AAA—fascinates me, and I return there as often as I can just to experience the area.
No wonder I like Hillerman’s novels. This Four Corners Area is backdrop for all his mysteries. But more than that: this landscape is actually a unifying character of his mystery stories, as he calls his novels. Nature—the land, the weather, the isolation, the history—is an integral part of tribal life from the morning salutation to the sun and the sacred lands and stories to the celebrations and rituals that mark the passages of life and death for his characters.
Hillerman moves easily from descriptions of landscape into the actions and even the thinking of his characters; these descriptions help the readers stay immersed in the land that is such an integral part of tribal life. Through nature descriptions it becomes clear that distance, silence, solitude, patience, waiting are as consistent and integral to life as are sunrises and sunsets, thunderstorms and dust storms.
The simple act of waiting for rain captures the truth of living in the area but also how patience and expectation are just part of life. The following excerpt is from Listening Woman (1978):
“The thunderhead that promised a shower to Tuba Mesa in the morning had drifted eastward over the Painted Desert and evaporated—the promise unfulfilled. Now another, taller thunderhead had climbed the sky to the north—over the slopes of Navajo Mountain in Utah. The color under it was blue-black, suggesting that on one small quadrant of mountainside the blessed rain was falling. Far to the southeast, blue and dim with distance, towering clouds had risen over the Chuskas on the Arizona-New Mexico border. There were other promising clouds to the south, drifting over the Hopi Reservation. The Hopis had held a rain dance Sunday, calling on the clouds—their ancestors—to restore the water blessing to the land. Perhaps the kachinas had listened to their Hopi children. Perhaps not. It was not a Navajo concept, this idea of adjusting nature to human needs. The Navajo adjusted himself to remain in harmony with the universe. When nature withheld rain, the Navajo sought the pattern of this phenomenon—as he sought the pattern of all things—to find its beauty and live in harmony with it.”
This power of his landscapes is frequently noted when his work is reviewed. In response to Sacred Clowns (1993), Newsweek concluded, “This is Hillerman at his best, mixing human nature, ethnicity, and the overpowering physical presence of the Southwest.” Or as the Denver Post said, “He makes the desert come alive.” Hillerman also acknowledged the importance of Nature, scenery, and landscape to his stories, but also how challenging it is to capture the truth about the area in words and even in photos. At least his many descriptions throughout his novels help readers see the land for more than just miles to drive through.
In Summer 2007, Hillerman wrote the introduction for his daughter’s book Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn. He had encouraged her to capture in text and photos (by Don Strel) many of the vistas pertinent to his mysteries. But he knew that capturing the true essence of the area is not really possible. As he notes, “Alas, there isn’t a way to show in photographs the key cultural beliefs that made me rate traditional Navajos the world’s most humane culture.”
In trying to explain the connection between the Navajos and their land, he told a story of the time in 1868 when they completed the Long Walk, trudging 300 miles in a little over a month to get back home. Being released from forced captivity, the tribal leaders had been given the option to move to a place where the farming would be better, the desolation less, and presumably the life easier. The Navajos wanted to go home. He offers this conclusion to the story and to his introduction:
“One of the commanders of the Army troops who escorted the Navajos wrote about the moment in this report to Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman, who had headed the commission that freed the tribe from captivity: ‘We paused for a rest there, and when the Navajo saw their mountain on the western horizon, the whole column broke out in shouts and tears of joy.’ But how can you show that in a photograph?”
Quite Simply, Tony Hillerman Is a Terrific Story Teller
In more literary terms, Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels are well written and offer engaging action and suspense. The dialog is always believable, and the action unfolds at a steady pace. Hillerman keeps on track with unraveling the mystery of the plot, but also adds in humor and a little romance to keep the stories from becoming lost in police procedures. He also offers some insightful commentary on the dominant white culture. In this example from Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), he shares a comment on a typical worker, here represented as an FBI agent who typically does not like working with the tribal police: “The FBI people always seemed to be O’Malleys–trimmed, scrubbed, tidy, able to work untroubled by any special measure of intelligence.”
The main stories are told with intricate detail, making the twists and turns seem logical and realistic. The thefts, crimes and murders of modern life are effectively balanced against tribal teachings and traditions, sings and celebrations. Readers are as likely to be taken to an archeological dig, a traditional hogan, or the local trading post as they are to go on road trips to local cities or Washington D. C. and into meetings with FBI agents. The mystery and intrigue of each story keep the readers turning the pages, often staying up late just to see how things turn out.
For me, the best thing about Hillerman’s mysteries are his believable and very likeable characters. His first protagonist—eventually after some revision—was Joe Leaphorn. This Indian has a masters in anthropology, so he understands but does not fully believe in the stories and teachings he was taught in his youth. His attention to detail and his need to make connections and seek solutions make him a good cop. [In the several films made of Hillerman’s novels, Wes Studi (in the sunglasses) does a remarkable job becoming Lt. Joe Leaphorn. Adam Beach plays Chee.]
Jim Chee was introduced in Hillerman’s People of Darkness (1980). In many ways, he served as a foil to Leaphorn. Chee, as a younger more idealistic tribal officer, provides a nice counter balance to Leaphorn’s perspective on tribal teachings. Chee truly values the ancient teachings and is training to be a singer or medicine man even as he works as a cop. Through his voice, readers are offered deft comparisons between tribal life and the dominant culture represented by such things as big cities, wealth and success, and FBI agents.
In the later novels, readers meet Bernie Manuelito, a young Navajo woman seeking advancement in the tribal police, moving for a time to work for Border Patrol. These characters—and the other secondary characters who populate their world—seem very real. I not only care what happens to these people, but would like to sit and share a cup of coffee with them as well.
In really simple terms, Tony Hillerman is a great storyteller! In these two videos, Hillerman talks about his storytelling and reads excerpts from some of his novels:
Not surprisingly, over the years, I made a point to read all of Hillerman’s novels. He was not as prolific as some writers, who churn out their tomes on a fairly quick schedule. Some of Hillerman’s novels came out just one year apart, but often there were two to four years between books. I got in the habit of watching for the next Hillerman novel to appear. In 2008, upon his death, I was devastated at the loss of his talent, his humanity, but also at the thought of not seeing Leaphorn and Chee in action again. For a short time, I still watched for a new novel, hoping that perhaps one had been in the works upon his death. After several years, I stopped looking.
Anne Hillerman’s Mystery Spider Woman’s Daughter
Then, around Christmas 2014, I noticed that there was indeed another Hillerman novel featuring Jim Chee, Joe Leaphorn, and Bernie Manuelito. Tony Hillerman’s daughter Anne wrote Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013. I was thrilled but also a bit dubious. Would she capture the balance of nature, character, action, and Indian culture that is such a trademark of her dad’s work? Would the dynamics of the characters meet expectations for those of us who know and love the characters from the first 18 novels?
Apparently, Anne Hillerman was a bit hesitant about taking on the challenge of continuing her dad’s work as well, even though fans kept asking if there were remnants of his stories left to be published. Finally, according to the acknowledgements at the end of her novel, she finally tackled the project with encouragement from fans as well as her dad’s editor. As Anne notes, her mother also applauded her efforts: “My mother, Marie Hillerman, continually encouraged me to write about the characters Dad created, assuring me that Tony would be happy to see them live on.” At that point, Anne began three years of research to ensure she was as detailed and accurate about the landscape, the procedurals, the tribal culture, and the characters as her dad had always been.
With the publication of her mystery Spider Woman’s Daughter, Anne Hillerman proved she did indeed get it right. First, her protagonists are the characters her father had created. Joe Leaphorn, now retired as he was at the end of her dad’s series, is still taking cases as a private investigator. Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito both still work as Navajo Tribal Police, now as a married couple as they also were at the end of her dad’s series. Their relationships and interactions seemed true to the characters, for the most part. Chee says “darling” and “beautiful” to his wife a bit more than I would have expected, but heck they’ve been married for several years by now, so his past hesitant silences would have diminished over time.
The complicated relationship between Chee and Leaphorn–built on respect but also on the interaction between an elder supervisor and a younger subordinate–was evident and nicely explored. Secondary characters were a good blend of characters from the past series and those new to this novel. Through the characters, the tribal culture and its past and present implications unfold, helping to move the story forward. The family/tribal relationships as well as the importance of cultural artifacts play their part in solving the story’s mystery.
Anne Hillerman also uses Nature as a recurring backdrop for the story. I like her dad’s descriptive flair a bit more than hers, but I expect that is partly a sense of familiarity with his presentations. Anne’s descriptions evoke place as well as offer commentary on the characters and their actions. Anne offers this description early in the novel as Bernie gets started in the investigation:
“Today, since she was starting from Window Rock, she took the quieter scenic route, which hugged the New Mexico-Arizona border, climbed over Narbona Pass, and then dropped into the open landscape of the reservation. Normally she loved the panorama of scenery, the play of shadows along the Black Creek Valley a bit west of the sprawling town and the vast, empty country that stretched east—shades of brown, gold, and red meeting the dome of blue sky. The cool ascent into the Chuska Mountains brought the vanilla fragrance of the ponderosas through her open window and, on a clear day, climaxed with a view of Dinetah from the top of the pass. Today, though, instead of the beauty around her, she noticed how her old Tercel struggled with the climb to the summit.”
In addition to the characters and her use of nature, Anne Hillerman also makes Spider Woman’s Daughter her own well-told story. Her primary protagonist is Bernie, an independent tribal officer who is taking the lead on the investigation even as she has been told to take a few days off. For her dad, Bernie was a primary character, but the bulk of the story was never from her point of view. For Anne Hillerman’s readers, through Bernie, they become aware of her roles as a young wife and a loving and devoted daughter and sister as much as her role as police officer. Bernie’s family and work responsibilities and her need to balance the different demands they place on her expand the view of modern reservation life—and help solve the crime.
Anne Hillerman’s plot has two dominant threads: the primary crime that assaults the reader in the first chapter as well as some relationship intrigues when Luisa (one her dad’s characters) seems to be missing in action. Each thread keeps the readers curious enough to keep seeking resolution. There is also more deliberate attention to the relationships between the main characters and how those are better defined by the end of the novel—not strengthened really but made more obvious.
Anne Hillerman’s mystery is well written and serves as an excellent next mystery in the Navajo Mystery Series started by her dad over 40 years ago. I expect her dad would applaud her efforts as well, given his love of storytelling as well as Indian culture. If you have not yet read any of the Hillerman novels, I suggest you do. You could really start anywhere to taste the flavor of the characters and culture that inhabits all 19 of the mysteries.
Anne Hillerman suggests that her dad’s A Thief of Time (1988) is a nice pairing with her novel because it served as a platform on which she built her story. My advice would just be to pick a novel and get started reading. As Tony Hillerman’s home state paper Oklahoma City Oklahoman says, “Readers who have not discovered Hillerman should not waste one minute more.”
Me? Having finished Anne’s Hillerman’s mystery, I was reminded how much I really like these characters. So now, I am re-reading Tony Hillerman’s mystery stories in order. I am also pleased that I can once again expect another Hillerman mystery will surface starring Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernie Manuelito. At least I hope Anne Hillerman will be writing some more mysteries in the years to come.
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*The 19 Hillerman Mysteries
Blessing Way, 1970
Dance Hall of the Dead, 1973
Listening Woman, 1978
People of Darkness, 1980
The Dark Wind, 1982
The Ghost Way, 1984
A Thief of Time, 1988
Talking God, 1989
Coyote Waits, 1990
Sacred Clowns, 1993
The Fallen Man, 1997
The First Eagle, 1998
Hunting Badger, 1999
The Wailing Wind, 2002
The Sinister Pig, 2003
Skelton Man, 2004
The Shape Shifter, 2006
Spider Woman’s Daughter, 2103—by Anne Hillerman
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Marilyn Stasio’s NY Times article effectively reviewed Tony Hillerman’s life and work on his death in October 2008. You can also learn more about him on Wikipedia.