Tony Hillerman whose beautifully written mysteries were set against the background of the Southwest and the Navajos Indian nation died in Albuquerque Sunday at the age 83. My wife and I discovered Hillerman’s novels after speaking to a friend about our first trip to the Southwest many years ago. We quickly searched our local bookstore and picked up a couple of his novels. We have been reading his work ever since. On our most recent trip to New Mexico last November, we stopped in a bookstore in Albuquerque’s Old Town looking for a Southwestern flavored mystery novel to read on the plane back home. We asked the proprietor if there were any new Hillerman’s soon to be published and he told us that Hillerman, a steady visitor to his store, was seriously ill and he doubted there would be any more books forthcoming. That was sad to here.
Hillerman’s novels were deeply soaked in the history of the Navajo tradition infusing the reader with a deep sense of respect for their traditions and values. In most of his works, his two main characters were Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. In his early books, Chee and Leaphorn were in separate novels finally coming together in “Skinwalkers” in 1986. Reading his books and traveling to many of the places he wrote about enhanced our trips immensely. It gave us a new outlook and Navajo culture and on top of that, Hillerman wrote a good mystery.
Hillerman was not the first mystery writer to introduce a fictional Native American detective however; he brought a new depth of understanding and revealed to many how sophisticated the Navajo nation was. His first novel, “The Blessing Way” came out in 1970; twenty-six books later, his last “The Shape Shifter” was published. Hillerman novels were so well verse in the Navajo ways that they were used as educational tools in Navajo schools.
Four of Hillerman’s books have been turned into movies. The first in 1992 was “The Dark Wind” with Lou Diamond Phillips in the role of Jim Chee and Fred Ward as Joe Leaphorn. This was followed by a series of three PBS made of TV movies “Skinwalkers” (2002), “Coyote Waits” (2003) and “A Thief in Time” (2004). All three starred Adam Beach as Jim Chee and Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn and all well worth your time.