Tony Hillerman Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
Tony Hillerman was a storyteller with a knack for the intricate plot that baffles the reader but yields to the intellect of his protagonists. Inevitably, his novels begin with a crime unnerving in its violence and sense of horror. In The Blessing Way , a young Navajo, Luis Horseman, is hiding deep within the vastness of the Navajo Reservation. He needs to avoid the “Blue Policeman,” but he is nervous, for he is hiding in Many Ruins Canyon, haunted by the ghosts of the Anasazi, who linger about the “Houses of the Enemy Dead.” The tone is one of lonely foreboding; it is at this point that Horseman “saw the Navajo Wolf”:He had heard nothing. But the man was standing not fifty feet away, watching him silently. He was a big man with his wolf skin draped across his shoulders. The forepaws hung limply down the front of his black shirt and the empty skull of the beast was pushed back on his forehead, its snout pointing upward. The Wolf looked at Horseman. And then he smiled. “I won’t tell,” Horseman said. His voice was loud, rising almost to a scream. And then he turned and ran, ran frantically down the dry wash. . . . And behind him he heard the Wolf laughing.
Thus the first chapter of The Blessing Way ends with questions dangling against a backdrop of menace and terror, a pattern made familiar in Hillerman’s following works. Later in the novel, Horseman’s body is discovered, “the dead eyes bulging and the lips drawn back in naked terror.” Hillerman’s protagonist, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, must enter into this world of witchcraft and violence and unravel the puzzle of Horseman’s murder. This is a task for which he is ideally suited:Leaphorn never counted on luck. Instead he expected order—the natural sequence of behavior, the cause producing the natural effect, the human behaving in the way it was natural for him to behave. He counted on that and upon his own ability to sort out the chaos of observed facts and find in them this natural order. Leaphorn knew from experience that he was unusually adept at this.
In this novel, as in the others of the Leaphorn series, Leaphorn uses his intellect and the knowledge of his people to undo the machinations of criminals whose spiritual deformities bring violence and terror. Thus on one hand, Hillerman worked well within the tradition of the ratiocinative detective story. Leaphorn is a Navajo Sherlock Holmes, a coolly logical mind engaged in the solution of a crime committed in most unusual circumstances. The particular genius of Hillerman’s work was the result of the unique perspective that his Navajo detectives bring to their work.
Both Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee must thread their way between cultures, retaining their psychological and spiritual balance as they move between the frenzied complexities of urban white society and the mythic world of the Navajo people, the Dinee. Leaphorn, who is the protagonist of The Blessing Way, Dance Hall of the Dead, and Listening Woman (1978), is sustained by his beloved wife, Emma, his intellectual curiosity, and his faith in the connectedness of things. However, his ability to see the pattern in events causes him “a faint subconscious uneasiness,” for it sets him apart from the norm. Intellectual detachment and objectivity enable him to pierce the curtain of appearances and to understand the underlying reality, but he pays a price for his powers. He sees a darkened vision of the human condition, and he is cut off from the traditions of his people, the Navajo way, which provides the sense of belonging and participation necessary to sustain his faith in life.
Indeed, Listening Woman, the third novel of the Leaphorn series, closes with the entombment of ritual sand paintings preserved to save the Dinee from extinction. It is a bleak vision. Although the crime has been solved and the criminals killed or apprehended, Leaphorn is left stranded on a spiritual moonscape in isolated self-exile. Therefore, it is not surprising that in People of Darkness (1980), Hillerman’s fourth novel set among the Navajo, he chose to introduce the younger and brasher Jim Chee, who consciously wrestles with the problems that Leaphorn observes.
In The Ghostway (1984), the sixth of Hillerman’s Navajo novels, Chee’s internal struggles for identity provide the means for exploring Navajo culture and white civilization, at least as it is typified by urban Los Angeles. Hillerman set the tone of this novel through the words of an old Navajo, Joseph Joe, who witnesses a shootout and murder in the parking lot of a reservation laundromat and reflects, “The driver was Navajo, but this was white man’s business.” This parking lot murder, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) involvement, and a runaway Navajo girl lead Chee into the grimy world of greater Los Angeles, where he is confronted with the realities of leaving the reservation and the Navajo way. There are no easy choices for Chee, and Hillerman gave him no pat answers.
Chee is a person moving in two directions. He believes deeply in his people and in the Navajo concept of hozro, to walk in beauty, to achieve harmony with one’s surroundings. Moreover, because he comes from a family famous for its singers (medicine men), he is acutely aware that the Dinee are losing their culture, that not enough young Navajo are learning the rituals of curing and...
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