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.
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).
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” his excavation sites with artifacts to support his theories and then killed the two Indian boys to keep them from exposing his counterfeit practices. In Listening Woman (1978) Leaphorn meets Margaret Cigaret, a traditional Navajo healer who discerns the cause of illnesses by listening to the wind. After Margaret leaves the hogan, or dwelling, of ailing Hosteen Tso to hear the wind, Tso and Margaret's niece are killed inside. Margaret's testimony leads Leaphorn to discover that Tso had broken a tribal taboo by attempting to preserve his sand paintings, sacred drawings intended to be ephemeral. The People of Darkness (1980) introduces Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo tribal police. Younger and more immersed in traditional Navajo beliefs than Leaphorn, Chee is a part-time tribal ceremonial singer who occasionally considers adopting an American lifestyle in order to join the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In this novel, a burglary in a wealthy white man's house leads to an examination of an oil-rig explosion that occurred thirty years earlier. In The Dark Wind (1982) Chee pursues criminals involved in a cocaine ring who have killed several Navajos. Chee's specialty, tracking criminals across the desert, combines his high-tech police training with the intimate knowledge of land that is instilled in most Navajos. Leaphorn and Chee unite to probe four murders in Skinwalkers, which begins with Chee's trailer being battered by a shotgun blast. Skeptical of Chee's involvement in Navajo shamanism, Leaphorn suspects his younger colleague of consorting with criminals. Although their temperaments and convictions differ, the two develop a grudging alliance, and ultimately deduce that the murderer thought his victims were skinwalkers, or Navajo demons.
In Talking God (1989) a lawyer for the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History opens her mail to find two human skeletons. The bones are accompanied by a note identifying them as her New England grandparents. The anonymous sender, who is protesting the museum's refusal to return Native American ancestral remains to descendants, insists the Smithsonian display these skeletons instead. Both Leaphorn and Chee, involved in separate investigations, unearth clues that lead them to Washington, D.C. In such later novels as A Thief of Time (1988), Talking God, and Coyote Waits (1990), Hillerman examines an important Navajo concept—the idea of hozho, meaning “harmony.” In these works, the importance of hozho is repeatedly explored and demonstrated through Chee's evolving relationship with a Navajo lawyer named Janet Pete, Leaphorn's relationship with his wife Emma, and the interaction between the two detectives. Alzheimer's disease appears to have struck Emma in Skinwalkers, and Joe must cope with his grief in A Thief of Time when he loses Emma during her recovery from surgery to treat a brain tumor. Throughout these works, Hillerman highlights the tensions between Chee's often rigid traditional views and the more relaxed outlook of both Leaphorn and Janet Pete. As the series progresses, both Leaphorn and Chee form a greater understanding of each other and develop a more balanced perspective that epitomizes the importance of the Navajo world view, known as the Navajo Way. In Sacred Clowns (1993), the two policemen investigate the seemingly unrelated murders of a shop teacher at the mission school and a sacred clown dancer. The Fallen Man (1996) focuses on a skeleton found on Ship Rock mountain in an area considered sacred to Navajos. Leaphorn is hired by a deceased rancher's family when the remains are discovered, and both he and Chee attempt to determine the cause of death and who stands to benefit most from the rancher's demise.
In 1995 Hillerman broke new ground with Finding Moon, a novel separate from the Leaphorn/Chee series. Finding Moon takes place in Vietnam and other nations of Southeast Asia in 1975 amidst the chaotic aftermath of the Vietnam War. Moon, a passive American editor on a Colorado newspaper, must travel to Vietnam in order to retrieve an infant girl. The girl, whom Moon did not know existed, is the daughter of his recently deceased brother and a Vietnamese woman. In the process of embarking on this potentially dangerous mission, Moon finds himself on a journey of self-discovery. In 1999 Hillerman returned his focus to Leaphorn and Chee in Hunting Badger. This work features many of the familiar themes of the Leaphorn/Chee series such as an examination of the conflict between Native Americans and mainstream white society, a sardonic commentary on the bungling FBI bureaucracy, and further treatment of the concept of hozho. These issues are explored within a fast-paced plot that includes the death of Chee's uncle and mentor—Hosteen Frank Sam Nakai—and the investigation of a murder at an Indian casino in Utah. Hillerman's works of nonfiction include Hillerman Country (1991), a discussion of Southwestern landscapes accompanied by photographs; New Mexico, Rio Grande, and Other Essays (1992), a collection of essays on the Southwest; and Seldom Disappointed, his memoirs.
Hillerman's mystery novels have continued to be highly popular with readers and critics alike. Reviewers have frequently applauded Hillerman's innovative fusion of several popular literary forms, including the Western, mystery, detective, and crime fiction genres. Commentators have noted Hillerman's sensitive and knowledgeable portrayal of Native American, particularly Navajo, culture—both traditional and contemporary. Hillerman's stories have been praised for their anthropological and ethnographic details of Navajo tribal culture and have earned him a considerable amount of respect from several Navajo tribes. In 1987 the Navajo Tribal Council granted Hillerman their Special Friend of Dineh award for his outstanding contribution to Navajo culture. Hillerman's work has also been celebrated for its vivid descriptions of the Southwestern landscape and the strong sense of place it evokes. Some critics have argued that landscape is not simply a backdrop to his stories, but is integral to the development of his characters. Reviewers have also focused on the increasing depth and complexity of the Leaphorn and Chee characters as they have evolved throughout the detective series. Many commentators have noted that, through these contrasting characters, Hillerman explores important issues faced by Native Americans in contemporary society. Hillerman has also been extolled for his skillful storytelling and complex, tightly woven plots. A number of critics have hailed Hillerman's more recent installments in the Leaphorn/Chee mystery series, including The Fallen Man and Hunting Badger, as among his best works.