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Tony Hillerman is primarily known for his mystery novels set in the Navajo country of the American Southwest. From The Blessing Way (1970) to Sacred Clowns (1993), a generation of readers has enjoyed getting to know Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, the protagonists of most of Hillerman’s thirteen detective novels and stories. Educated at universities but cognizant of Navajo customs, the two protagonists show sharp contrasts between the majority and minority cultures of the Southwest. Constantly mediating between Native American groups and numerous white law enforcement agencies, Leaphorn and Chee solve mysteries through a judicious blend of logic and nature-oriented metaphysics.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Education Among Native Americans
Anthony Grove Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, on May 27,1925, the youngest child of August Alfred and Lucy Grove Hillerman. His father taught at a one-room school in rural Texas and then was a farmer, cowboy, farrier, and storekeeper. His mother was a homemaker. Between 1930 and 1938, Tony, his brother Barney, and sister Mary Margaret were among a handful of white children attending St. Mary’s Academy, a boarding school for Native Americans in Sacred Heart. In Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir (2001), Hillerman says of his childhood: ”Everybody was poor and when you’re a kid you don’t know you’re deprived unless you see someone who isn’t.” He grew up with children of the Potawatomi and Seminole tribes as playmates and said the experience permitted him to feel comfortable among Native Americans.
A Soldier’s Struggle and Return
Beginning in 1939, Hillerman attended Konawa (Oklahoma) High School, graduating in 1942. He spent one semester at Oklahoma Agricultural & Mechanical College in 1942, working as a dishwasher and ditch digger to pay tuition and expenses. In 1943, his mother, whom he credits with teaching him to seek adventure and never to whine or be afraid, consented to his enlisting in the army to serve in World War II. He went to France in 1944 as a mortar gunner in the 410th Infantry Regiment, seeing combat in the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge and receiving a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster. In 1945, he stepped on a landmine and was temporarily blinded, and suffered broken legs and severe burns. He received the Purple Heart.
After five months of hospitalization in France, Hiller-man was returned to the United States. While still on convalescent leave from the army in 1945, he took a job transporting oil-field equipment. On one trip to the Navajo Reservation, he observed an Enemy Way curing ceremony for Navajos who had served in the marines. The purpose of the ceremony was to cure them of the evil influences they had encountered in seeing death in the war and to restore them to harmony with the Navajo people. It sparked his interest in learning more about the tribe.
In 1946, Hillerman enrolled at the University of Oklahoma under the G.I. Bill, majoring in journalism. While there, he met Marie Unzner, a fellow student, from Shawnee, Oklahoma. The couple married in 1948, the year Hillerman graduated with a B.A. degree, and have raised six children, five of whom were adopted.
Finding a Character
Hillerman had long wanted to write fiction, and in the late 1960s, despite the pressures of supporting a large family, he was encouraged to do so by his wife. He began working on a novel. Hillerman enjoyed mystery fiction and had been impressed by Arthur W. Upfield, who created a part-Aborigine Australian police detective who often solves cases in his country’s outback, using his knowledge of native culture and his ability to track and interpret physical clues. Hillerman decided to set his mysteries among the Navajos, whose reservation covers more than sixteen million acres in the ”four corners” area where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado abut.
Hillerman introduced Joe Leaphorn, a lieutenant in the Navajo Tribal Police, in his first novel, The Blessing Way (1970). In the initial draft of this book, a white anthropology professor, Bergen McKee, plays a larger role than Leaphorn. In his memoir, Hillerman recalls that his agent, Ann Elmo, recommended that he ”Get rid of the Indian stuff.” The editor at Harper and Row, Joan Kahn, to whom Hillerman then submitted the manuscript directly, liked it and advised him to increase the amount of the book devoted to Leaphorn and Navajo culture.
Hillerman returned to the Navajo Reservation and Joe Leaphorn with Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), a novel in which he also explores the culture of the Zuni tribe. Hillerman earned his third straight Edgar nomination from the Mystery Writers of America for this book, and this time won the prize for best novel. H. R. F. Keating, critic and mystery writer, included Dance Hall of the Dead in Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books (1987).
Five years passed before Hillerman’s next mystery appeared, but during the interim, he published much nonfiction. The Great Taos Bank Robbery and Other Indian Country Affairs (1973) is a collection of essays Hillerman wrote regarding the various cultures of New Mexico. The title essay about Taos and its clumsy criminals is regarded as Hillerman’s funniest writing.
Hillerman’s experience with Hollywood became legendary when in 1990 he agreed with Robert Redford to make a movie of his novel The Dark Wind. Their original discussion has become part of Hillerman lore, as he refused Redford’s offer of sending a private airplane to Albuquerque to bring him to Redford’s retreat in the Utah mountains because the invitation clashed with Hillerman’s weekly poker game. The two men did eventually meet and toured the reservation together, but the movie, made in 1991, was a disappointment. Additional filmed adaptations have been made for public television, including Skinwalkers (2002) and Coyote Waits (2003).
In addition to regularly producing novels that are bestsellers, Tony Hillerman has become arguably the most interviewed and written-about mystery writer in America since 1970. Part of the reason may be that his books explore social problems through their depiction of a native culture previously unrepresented in crime fiction. It is no wonder that Hillerman has won awards for best western as well as best mystery: readers emerge from his tales with a deep sense of the character of the Southwest and of the convergence of landscape, history, and cultures that shape the detective plots, characters, and themes of his mysteries.
Works in Literary Context
Cross-Cultural Contemporary Issues
Hillerman’s journalistic background informs all of his writing; critics have widely noted how Hillerman’s detective plots resonate with contemporary events and issues. In an interview with Ernie Bulow published in Words, Weather, and Wolfmen (1989), Hillerman comments:
It’s very important to me that the stories seem realistic. They seem [to be] about people who could really be people and things that could really happen. I’m writing about the reality, and frequently the headlines happen after the book is started, or long finished. The reality to which Hillerman addresses himself is often the Native American cultures of the Southwest. From his plots, which often center on Native American tradition, legends, and rituals, to his characterizations of Navajo detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, who struggle to reconcile their Navajo heritage with their Anglo education and U. S. government jobs, Hillerman’s fiction is valuable for its portrayal of true cross-cultural perspectives. Many readers have compared Hillerman’s mysteries to ethnographies, as they provide a fictional window into the cultural and political issues of contemporary Navajo life.
Writing the Land
Critics praise Hillerman’s infusion of Southwestern landscapes into his fiction and nonfiction writing. Essays such as New Mexico, Rio Grande, and the pictorial essay Indian Country: America’s Sacred Land incorporate a sense of place and regional identity directly, but Hillerman’s detective fiction also depends on a deep knowledge of Southwestern landscapes. ”For some reason when I’m writing it’s essential for me to have in my mind a memory of the landscape, the place where that chapter’s action is to take place,” he told Bulow. Like the Southwest wind, Hillerman’s fiction sweeps across the vastness, rich textures and colors, and desolate beauty of the Southwest landscape, giving his stories and characters a rich sense of place and history linked with the region.
Works in Critical Context
Reviews of Hillerman’s work continues to be favorable. Most reviewers esteem Hillerman’s novels less for their conventional detective plots than for their illumination of American Indian cultures. Robin W. Winks observed:
[Hillerman] has developed his own niche in mystery and detective fiction . . . by turning the mystery and its solution upon the intricate social and religious life of the Indians of the American Southwest. These books could exist nowhere else, they are authentic, and the resolutions grow out of the character of an entire people.
The Blessing Way
Critics differed on how suspenseful The Blessing Way was, with A. L. Rosenzweig writing in Book World that Hillerman was ”… weak on twanging the nerves,” while Sergeant Cuff in the Saturday Review opined, ”Here’s suspense enough for anyone.” Reviewers generally agreed that Hillerman’s writing about Navajo culture had added a dimension to the mystery, causing W. H. Farrington in Library Journal to conclude, ”Here we have that rarity: a mystery with literary value, one you can recommend to people who don’t like mysteries.”
Despite favorable reviews and a nomination for the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, The Blessing Way did not entirely satisfy Hillerman. Twenty years later, in an interview with Ernie Bulow in Talking Mysteries (1991), Hillerman agreed with criticisms of this book for inaccuracies regarding the Navajos, saying, ”a lot of it makes me flinch.”
Reviewers had more reservations about Sacred Clowns than about most Hillerman books. In The New York Times Book Review, Verlyn Klinkenborg, calling this Hillerman’s most ”pallid” mystery, questioned his tendency to make whites guilty of murder as well as insensitive to Indians. Though feeling that the identification of the killer did not ring true, Barry Gardner in Mostly Murder praised the description of Leaphorn and Chee as characters: ”Their lives and problems are very much part of the story, and each here is struggling with a personal relationship that troubles and confuses him.” In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Charles Champlin stated that Sacred Clowns ”is neither the most suspenseful nor the most active of the Leaphorn series” but it is ”one of the warmest and most pleasing.” While Chicago Tribune Books reviewer Dick Adler called the book ”as good as anything [Hillerman’s] done,” Donald McCraig asserted in Washington Post Book World ”on the whole the novel is disappointing and sometimes irritating.”
- Erisman, Fred. Tony Hillerman. Western Writers Series, no. 37. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1989.
- Greenberg, Martin, ed. The Tony Hillerman Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to His Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
- Linford, Laurence D. Tony Hillerman’s Navajoland: Hideouts, Haunts and Havens in the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Mysteries. Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 2001.
- Sobol, John. Tony Hillerman: A Public Life. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1994.
- Ames, Katrine. ”In the Heart of Navajo Country.” Newsweek 97 (June 19, 1981): 60-61.
- Bulow, Ernie. Words, Weather and Wolfmen: Conversations with Tony Hillerman. Gallup, N. Mex.: Southwestern, 1989.
- Gaugenmaier, Judith Tabor. ”The Mysteries of Tony Hillerman.” American West 26 (December 1989): 46-47, 56-58.
- Parfit, Michael. ”Weaving Mysteries That Tell of Life among the Navajos.” Smithsonian 21 (December 1990): 92-96, 98, 100, 102, 104-105.
- Strenski, Ellen and Robley Evans. ”Ritual and Murder in Tony Hillerman’s Indian Detective Novels.” Western American Literature 16 (November 1981): 205-216.
- Holt, Patricia. ”PW Interviews Tony Hillerman.” Publishers Weekly (October 24, 1980): 6-7.
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