Tony Hillerman Hillerman, Tony

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tony Hillerman 1925-

(Full name Anthony Grove Hillerman) American novelist, memoirist, editor, essayist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hillerman's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 62.

Critically acclaimed for their accurate and dramatic evocations of contemporary Native American life, Hillerman's mystery novels are typically set in the “Four Corners”—the Southwestern region where the borders of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah intersect. Most of Hillerman's works focus on Navajo police detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, whose investigations cover the Navajo, Hopi, Apache, and Zuñi reservations. Educated at universities but cognizant of Navajo customs, the two protagonists personify 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 the white man's logic and the Navajo's nature-oriented metaphysics. Many reviewers esteem Hillerman's novels not only for their intricate detective plots but also for their illumination of Native American cultures as well.

Biographical Information

Hillerman was born on May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, where his parents farmed and ran a general store. Raised among the Potawatomi, Blackfoot, and Seminole tribes in Oklahoma, Hillerman attended a school for Native American girls and developed an appreciation for Native American culture. After graduating from high school, Hillerman briefly attended Oklahoma State University, dropping out to join the army at the age of eighteen. Hillerman participated in combat in World War II from 1943 to 1945. His military service included taking part in the D-Day invasion at Normandy, receiving a battle wound during a firefight in Alsace, and earning a Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. Hillerman's letters home describing his experiences impressed a feature writer for the Daily Oklahoman who advised him to become a writer. After the war, Hillerman enrolled in the journalism program at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1948. That same year, he married Mary Unzner. Between 1948 and 1963, Hillerman worked various jobs as a reporter and editor in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In 1963 he entered the graduate study program in English at the University of New Mexico, earning a master's degree in 1966. Hillerman held the post of professor of journalism at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque from 1965 to 1985. His first novel, The Blessing Way, was published in 1970, and others quickly followed. Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1974. In 1985 Hillerman became a professor emeritus and continued to publish mystery novels as well as several works of nonfiction. He has won numerous awards, including an Anthony Award in 1988 for Skinwalkers (1986), a Grandmaster Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1991, a Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere, and an Anthony Award for Best Nonfiction/Critical work for Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir (2001).

Major Works

Hillerman's recurring characters of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee first appeared in two separate series of novels, later teaming up as partners in subsequent novels. Focusing on the apparent murder of a young Navajo, The Blessing Way introduces police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, a reserved, logical, and partially assimilated Navajo who tracks down the killer. Leaphorn investigates Zuñi tribal rites in Dance Hall of the Dead, which opens with the murder of Ernesto Cata, a Zuñi boy in training for the ceremonial role of the fire god Shulawitsi. Suspicion falls on Cata's Navajo friend, George Bowlegs, who longs to become a Zuñi. When Bowlegs is killed, Leaphorn discovers the murderer is a white archaeologist, who “salted”...

(The entire section is 30,936 words.)