Tony Hillerman Essay - Critical Essays

Tony Hillerman American Literature Analysis

Tony Hillerman placed his finely plotted traditional detective novels into unusual settings within the Native American lands of the southwestern United States. By making his policemen American Indians, Hillerman had them guide the reader through an unfamiliar world while adhering to many of the conventions of the police procedural. As Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee work out how and why crimes have been committed, they are themselves constantly reevaluating and reconfiguring their sense of identity and their own places in the world. Their world is clearly a confusing one: Both men are Navajo employed by the tribal police, but their work brings them into constant contact with white people and other Native American tribes. They can make no comfortable assumptions but must always be learning about another culture’s way of thinking about or doing things.

Although action and plenty of suspense occur in these books, befitting the nature of the genre, the two detectives must take what they already know or learn through investigation and then think through the solutions. Such detection is basic to the tradition of mystery writing that goes back to the beginnings of the genre, with Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. To understand motives, the questioners must weigh cultural motivations and beliefs and strive to understand unfamiliar ways. Moreover, the supernatural is a constant thread that must be dealt with, either because it appears to be affecting events or because characters are affected by their feelings about it.

Hillerman created two diverse policemen: the younger, more spiritual Chee, a shaman-in-training, and the older, more cynical Leaphorn. Hillerman said that of his two detectives, Leaphorn was probably more like him. More than Leaphorn, Chee consciously resists assimilation by returning to traditional medicine ways and refusing to go work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which is what his white girlfriend, Mary Landon, in the earlier books wants him to do. However, both men ultimately use their Navajo background and values in their work and daily lives. Leaphorn and Chee represent two ways of approaching the Native American culture and other cultures. Both are innately respectful of all religions and peoples they encounter, from the old drunk man or woman to the hardscrabble poor. The wealthy seem to inspire, if anything, less respect than the poor. Hillerman made no bones about the fact that he grew up wearing bib overalls, unlike the rich kids with their belted pants.

Hillerman’s plots are full of twists, turns, and unexpected paths that are only improved by the setting and Native American characters. His characters do not devolve to stereotypes: Greed is by no means the province of the Anglo, while the Native American has no stranglehold on spirituality. The divisions between the many diverse worlds in the Southwest create tensions that he can exploit for his novels, but the underlying motives are clearly universal. Leaphorn and Chee solve their crimes using standard police work, asking questions and following leads, but through it all maintaining an awareness of how different cultures can make people act differently, at least superficially.

Much of a tribal policeman’s time is spent driving and thinking while viewing the grand and sometimes desolate landscapes of the Southwest. Because so few people inhabit this terrain, nature appears more immediate, more vital, and more dangerous. Long distances between hogans, people, and places imply freedoms that are different than life for most Anglos. Hillerman often began chapters with physical descriptions that echo the emotional state of one of the policemen. There’s a sense of darkness underlying these descriptions, and the mood and language are almost reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. Descriptions of landscape thus reflect the way the American Indians think about their lives.

The spirit world is alive for many of the natives on the reservation. In Dance Hall of the Dead, for instance, the hippies have not just moved onto the land, but have moved into an abandoned Navajo hogan. That they did so shows their ignorance—a woman has died in that hogan and her spirit was trapped there. In this way, Hillerman indicated that the Native Americans do not see the same world that the Anglos do and through further comparisons, that the Zunis do not see the world as the Navajo do, and so on. Hillerman’s work thus becomes a primer on the diversity of points of view, for someone else may see things very differently. This attempt to understand other ways of seeing is at the heart of Leaphorn and Chee’s ability to solve crimes and restore order to society. That understanding is crucial to coexistence.

Significantly, Hillerman, as an Anglo, made no attempt to claim himself as an expert in Indian matters. Some of his novels begin with a brief disclaimer, an author’s note or acknowledging, as in Dance Hall of the Dead, that he depicted landscape or religion as accurately as he could and in another that he has changed a location. He prefaced his first book with the names of the authors from whom he had derived ethnological material. Clearly the author took care to be as respectful of his ethnic subjects as did his policemen.

Hillerman learned his spare style of detective novel writing from many years as a journalist. He wrote in a strong, active voice, with a few, crisp details delineated by sparse adjectives and adverbs. Description served only to move the plot forward and was nearly always observed by the characters themselves.

Hillerman was credited with inventing the Native American detective novel, but he followed in a line of similarly employed ethnic detectives solving mysteries in their own worlds. He wrote about the landscape he knew best, and his knowledge of current events and legal issues in the Southwest emanating from his years working on newspapers clearly informed his writing. He used his nonfiction background and knowledge of Native American values and traditions to further cultural understanding as well as to make his fiction more compelling.

Dance Hall of the Dead

First published: 1973

Type of work: Novel

Tribal police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn tries to find a Navajo boy in danger who is connected to an archaeology dig, a drug operation, and a Zuni festival.

Dance Hall of the Dead is the second novel to feature the Navajo lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. The novel, which deals with a Navajo...

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