Tony Hillerman Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2234

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.

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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.

The Ghostway

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 blessing necessary to preserve the Navajo way. Chee’s uncle, Frank Sam Nakai, is teaching Chee to be a singer, a part of the living oral tradition of the Dinee.

Chee finds himself torn by his love for an Anglo schoolteacher, Mary Landon, who cherishes Chee but who is appalled by the thought of rearing their children in the isolation of a reservation larger than the combined states of New England. This predictable dilemma is made plausible by Chee’s sophistication, for Jim Chee isan alumnus of the University of New Mexico, a subscriber to Esquire and Newsweek, an officer of the Navajo Tribal Police, lover of Mary Landon, holder of a Farmington Public Library card, student of anthropology and sociology, “with distinction” graduate of the FBI Academy, holder of Social Security card 441-28-7272.

Mary Landon wants Chee to join the FBI, but for Chee this means ceasing to be a Navajo, leaving the sacred land of the Navajo bounded by the four holy mountains, and giving up any hope of being a restorer of harmony to his people. When Chee pursues the runaway Margaret Billy Sosi into Los Angeles, he has to confront his choices and himself.

Hillerman used Chee’s odyssey in Los Angeles to provide disturbing insights into urban life. Chee encounters children who are prostitutes and old people who have been abandoned to the ministrations of callous caretakers in convalescent homes. In one of the most telling scenes in the novel, Chee questions a resident of the Silver Threads Rest Home. A stroke victim, Mr. Berger has been an overlooked observer of events Chee needs to understand. Chee is aware that despite Berger’s stroke and speech impediment, his mind is alert. Chee and Berger engage in a pantomime of the hands in order to relate what Berger has witnessed. Such a scene is dangerous for a novelist, for it hangs between the bathetic and the ludicrous, yet Hillerman handled it with a detached clarity that gave it a memorable poignance.

The balanced and compassionate Chee is counterpoised by Vaggan, a frighteningly efficient professional killer who lives in spartan isolation, carefully preparing for the holocaust he is sure will come. He frequently makes racist speculations on the nature of those who will survive:This one would never survive, and should never survive. When the missiles came, he would be one of the creeping, crawling multitude of weaklings purged from the living.

Vaggan is convinced that he will be one of the survivors because he is a predator. He would be nothing more than a stock figure of evil if he were not a reflection of easily recognized social illnesses. Moreover, Hillerman gave him a family background that is as sterile and loveless as Vaggan himself. Vaggan shares much with Hillerman’s other villains; he is motivated by money, completely alienated from other human beings, and devoid of compassion and sympathy.

Chee is aware that he is not Vaggan’s equal in matters of personal combat, yet he twice finds himself confronting Vaggan. Nevertheless, Chee prevails, for he is saved by Margaret Sosi, the young woman he set out to protect, who is a part of the great Navajo family. There is no one to save Vaggan, and he perishes at the hands of the person he sought to destroy.

In The Ghostway, Hillerman developed the central themes of his work. For Hillerman, the sources of evil are alienation and greed, a truism that applies to both Anglo and Navajo societies. According to Navajo mythology, when First Man and First Woman emerged from the flooding waters of the Fourth World, “they forgot witchcraft and so they sent Diving Heron back for it. They told him to bring out ’the way to get rich’ so the Holy People wouldn’t know what he was getting.” Thus Navajo who practice witchcraft prey on others for personal gain; they no longer have harmony or walk in beauty. Cut off from the Navajo way, witches are, however, powerful and hard to kill. The only effective way to kill a witch is to turn the evil around, to turn it back on the witch with the help of a singer, one who walks in beauty. Jim Chee struggles to be such a person. Mary Landon knows that Chee would cease to be a Navajo living away from the holy land of the Dinee, that he would no longer walk in beauty among his people or follow the calling of his uncle, Frank Sam Nakai. She saves Chee from the consequences of his decision by choosing to remove herself from Chee’s life. The novel closes with Chee’s resumption of his efforts to become a Navajo medicine man, restorer of hozro to the Dinee.

Chee and Leaphorn Series

After A Thief of Time, Hillerman merged his two series into one, bringing Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn together—although they continued to follow their own separate trails. Talking God (1989) moves the detectives from the open spaces of the Southwest and the interconnected community of the reservation to the urban claustrophobia and indifference of Washington, D.C. The introduction of elements alien to the series’ previous volumes—such as noirish politico-bad guys—displeased some critics, but the displacement, in much the way Chee’s Los Angeles time does in The Ghostway, serves to underline the essential qualities which made Hillerman’s detectives unique.

With Coyote Waits (1990) Hillerman returned to the reservation, with Jim Chee. The cases in both Coyote Waits and Sacred Clowns (1993) are tied up in Native American myth, through coyote, the trickster, and witchcraft, and with religious/cultural practice, through the koshare—the sacred clown of the kachina dance.

While each of Hillerman’s novels is a separate and well-crafted mystery, there is an underlying spiritual pattern to his work that reveals itself in the Navajo mythology. Both Leaphorn and Chee look into the face of evil and are not dismayed. Both suffer sorrow and loss. In A Thief of Time, Leaphorn loses his beloved Emma, bringing him close to despair. To those who are familiar with Hillerman’s work, however, it is no surprise to find that this novel closes with the logical Leaphorn turning to the mystical Chee to help him restore his inner harmony by performing the ceremony of the Blessing Way.

The overall length of Hillerman’s series is an achievement in itself. With the publication of his last novel, Shape Shifter, in 2006, Leaphorn and Chee had been working together on and off for thirty-six years. Late in the series, a greater emphasis on the personal lives of its characters began, in some critics’s estimation, to weigh down the plots. After such a long relationship with readers, a geriatric Leaphorn and love-struck (up, down, and sideways) Chee may have earned the sympathetic indulgence of fans. The elevation of minor sidekick Bernie Manuelito to central character (and romantic interest of Chee) in The Sinister Pig (2003) infused the series with new energy when, mystery-wise, it seemed to flag.

Like most successful mysteries, Hillerman’s stories may follow a pattern, but they are never formulaic. Chee and Leaphorn’s lives continue, and they, as well as other characters peopling the books, are quite believably complex. In The Fallen Man (1996), Leaphorn has retired to become a private detective, and though still mourning his wife’s loss, he is looking at a possible new relationship. Chee takes over Leaphorn’s old job and works through a relationship with Janet Pete, which spans six books and is difficult, engaging, and painfully real. When Sergeant Jim Chee goes to meet the retired Lieutenant Leaphorn in Hunting Badger (1999), he nearly overlooks the “stocky old duffer” sitting in a corner. It is for these reasons, as much as for unpredictable plots, an unfailing integrity in portraying the Southwest landscape and the Native American relationship to it, and his clear, evocative prose, that Hillerman’s novels were so successful and well-respected.

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Tony Hillerman American Literature Analysis


Hillerman, Tony