Tony Hillerman

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Ralph B. Sipper (review date 25 July 1982)

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SOURCE: Sipper, Ralph B. “How High the Sun and Other Tracking Clues.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 July 1982): 6.

[In the following review, Sipper lauds Hillerman's prose in The Dark Wind, calling the novel “a compact story that engages.”]

Until someone I trust praised Tony Hillerman's fiction, I had not read any of his mystery novels featuring a Navajo policeman. The detective as gimmick—be he blind, wheelchair-bound or homosexual—usually portends a one-note performance with everything hinged to the differentness of the gimmick being exploited. Such superficial invention usually means the reader is in for a long night.

Not so with The Dark Wind, a convincing argument for examining each case on its own merits, for not filling in the quick pigeonhole. Hillerman's book works on the levels a good mystery should. It is a compact story that engages, an implicit commentary on the Indian society it portrays, a mini-study of arcane subjects that bear directly on the plot.

Jim Chee becomes involved in solving several murders tied to a cocaine shipment hidden in the Southwestern high desert country he patrols. Though his jurisdiction does not extend beyond Indian borders, Chee commits himself to finding out who killed on his turf and why.

As in better police procedurals, we learn, concretely, how professionals work. Chee's forte is tracking—thorough hands-and-knees stuff that requires an intimate knowledge of the terrain and those who live on it. He knows just how high the sun must be for the slanting light necessary in reading the faintest of tracks. Nor is Chee's talent a cultural hand-me-down only. He has learned modern methods to discern differences of tire treads quicker than you can say Mark C. Bloome.

When he is troubled, this modern-day detective falls back on his cultural heritage. Here is how he resolves confused reasoning:

“Everything has a right direction to it,” his uncle would have told him. “You need to do it sunwise. From the east toward the south, to the west, and finally around to the north. That's the way the sun goes, that's the way you turn when you walk into a hogan, that's the way everything works. That's the way you should think.” And what the devil did this uncle's abstract Navajo generally mean in this case? It meant, Chee thought, that you should start in the beginning, and work your way around to the end.

Language as well as philosophy melds with narrative, as in the scene when Chee asks a woman about her son:

“You are hunting for him,” she said. Navajo is a language which loads its meanings into its verbs. She used the word which means “to stalk,” as a hunted animal, and not the form which means “to search for,” as for someone lost. The tone was as accusing as the word. Chee changed the verb. “I search for him,” Chee said.

Throughout, the language is equally precise and plain as befits its subject and stoic protagonist. Chic phrases and flashy metaphors are for faraway places like Santa Fe or Las Vegas, places Jim Chee does not know.

Like his Navajo policeman, Tony Hillerman never loses his sense of place.


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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...

(This entire section contains 1633 words.)

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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” 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.

Critical Reception

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.

Orlando A. Romero (review date 9 July 1989)

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SOURCE: Romero, Orlando A. “Lieutenant Leaphorn Goes to Washington.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 July 1989): 13.

[In the following review, Romero comments on the narrative plot and style of Talking God, noting that Hillerman is “one of America's best storytellers.”]

Tony Hillerman's new novel [Talking God] takes the reader through a crescendo of characters, locations, plots and subplots. Hillerman manipulates his reader to the hilt. It wouldn't be a Hillerman mystery otherwise.

The plot is centered around Yeibachai, the great Talking God of Navajo night chant ceremonial. The author's ability to relate with great detail the Navajo mythology surrounding the ceremonial adds a dimension that his fans expect. First-time readers will discover that he has set the stage for the introduction of two Navajo cops, each from a different police agency.

Reunited to solve the mystery of a dead foreign terrorist found in New Mexico, they find themselves embroiled in a conflict over valuable ancient ceremonial masks, the return of about 18,000 Native American remains held at the Smithsonian, and the introduction of a reborn Indian named Highhawk, who is the Smithsonian conservator in charge of an ambitious exhibit called “The Masked Gods of the Americas.”

Highhawk's deep love of Navajo culture, his connections to terrorists, his work at the Smithsonian, his attendance and recording of the night chant ceremonial and his arrest for digging up a historically prominent New England couple to challenge the Smithsonian's retention of Native American skeletons add further complexity to the plot.

Janet Pete, a Navajo turned Washington lawyer, takes on Highhawk's defense. When Jim Chee, one of the two Navajo cops, arrives in Washington, Janet confides in him that she believes she is being followed. Fleck, the unsavory character following her, turns out to be connected to a larger evil.

Hillerman left me very uncomfortable with the development of this heavy. At first, I sympathized: a product of the so-called justice system, I thought; an assassin by circumstance rather than by choice. But the introduction of his “Mama,” a deranged character maintained in a nursing home by Fleck's earnings from his “profession,” is gratuitously confusing.

While Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is trying to figure out Fleck, Lt. Joe Leaphorn is trying to discover the identity of the toothless corpse found in New Mexico. I wasn't sure Hillerman could draw these two cops together, especially in an environment as foreign to them as D.C., but he pulls it off very smoothly.

Hillerman is also very clever at describing the predicament of the modern Pueblo Indian and turning it into a minor plot to distract us from the real villains. The return of one of the Tano Twin War Gods may get a young Pueblo official elected and thus assure a right-of-way on Pueblo Indian land; further increasing the value of land being developed by Sunbelt Corp. Traditionalists, of course, are opposed. Out here in Pueblo Land, the issue of Indian development is quite a serious matter, so for a while the reader is led to believe that plain old land development greed is somehow connected to the corpse in the desert.

Hillerman also spins off little intellectual diversions to see if his fans are paying attention to the plot. These passages read like little tests to see how much the reader knows about the Southwest. When our toothless terrorist's baggage contents are examined, a few pieces of Indian pottery are wrapped in Spanish language newspaper entitled El Crespusculo de la Libertac, The Dawn of Liberty. Any serious student of the Southwest would immediately know that this is one of the rarest newspapers ever published in the Southwest, one for which a collector might literally kill. Then, as the plots develop, the fact that the newspaper is in Spanish ends up being its only connection with the stiff.

Hillerman's great skill is in throwing out possible scenarios while hiding motive in a complex web of myth, exotic characters and remote places. One of America's best storytellers, he gives new meaning to the label mystery writer. His inspiration is the Southwest and its people, but his ability as a storyteller has no limits. Another golden star for Tony Hillerman has just crossed his sky.

Principal Works

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The Blessing Way (novel) 1970

The Fly on the Wall (novel) 1971

Dance Hall of the Dead (novel) 1973

Listening Woman (novel) 1978

The People of Darkness (novel) 1980

The Dark Wind (novel) 1982

Ghostway (novel) 1984

Skinwalkers (novel) 1986

A Thief of Time (novel) 1988

*The Joe Leaphorn Mysteries (novels) 1989

Talking God (novel) 1989

Coyote Waits (novel) 1990

Hillerman Country: A Journey through the Southwest with Tony Hillerman [with photographs by Barney Hillerman] (nonfiction) 1991

Talking Mysteries: A Conversation with Tony Hillerman (interviews) 1991

The Jim Chee Mysteries (novels) 1992

Leaphorn and Chee (novels) 1992

New Mexico, Rio Grande, and Other Essays [with photographs by David Meunch and Robert Reynolds] (essays) 1992

Sacred Clowns (novel) 1993

The Mysterious West [editor] (short stories) 1994

Finding Moon (novel) 1995

The Fallen Man (novel) 1996

The First Eagle (novel) 1998

Hunting Badger (novel) 1999

Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir (memoirs) 2001

The Wailing Wind (novel) 2002

The Sinister Pig (novel) 2003

*Includes The Blessing Way,Dance Hall of the Dead, and Listening Woman.

†Includes The People of Darkness,The Dark Wind, and Ghostway.

‡Includes Skinwalkers,A Thief of Time, and Talking God.

Jan Roush (essay date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Roush, Jan. “The Developing Art of Tony Hillerman.” Western American Literature 28, no. 2 (summer 1993): 99-110.

[In the following essay, Roush asserts that the novels in Hillerman's Leaphorn/Chee series deserve to be recognized as “anthropological mysteries,” applauding the author's creation of works that explicate the Navajo concept of “hozho,” or harmony, and serve as entertainment as well.]

For almost a decade now Tony Hillerman has ensnared readers with his fast-paced and tightly plotted mysteries about crime on the reservations of the Southwest. Using desolate backdrops of sandswept, sparsely populated land, he weaves stories of murder and intrigue which fuse the traditional Western of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour with the modern Western of detective fiction made popular by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to create a new genre: anthropological mystery.

Though Hillerman's trademark is making life on the Navajo Reservation so vivid with anthropological detail that his readers think they have been submerged in Navajo culture, he nevertheless insists that what he is writing is, after all, entertainment. “My readers,” he says, “are buying a mystery, not a tome of anthropology. … The name of the game is telling stories: no educational digressions allowed” (Talking Mysteries, 39).

Entertainment it may be, but over the years he has honed his craft into art, and it is primarily through his characters that Hillerman's real development as a writer may be seen. Through the creation of his two main protagonists, Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and their female counterparts, his art evolves from entertainment to a morally significant statement of a way of life: the establishment of hozho—harmony—for the Navajo people. Hillerman tells the story of discussing the works of Native American novelists like Leslie Silko, James Welch, and N. Scott Momaday with a Navajo librarian. “They are artists,” he said. “I am a storyteller.” And the librarian replied: “Yes. We read them and their books are beautiful. We say, ‘Yes, this is us. This is reality.’ But it leaves us sad, with no hope. We read of Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and Old Man Tso and Margaret Cigaret, and the Tsossies and Begays and again we say, ‘Yes, this is us. But now we win.’ Like the stories our grandmother used to tell us, they make us feel good about being Navajos” (TM [Talking Mysteries], 43). It is through the portrayal of such characters, operating in a landscape imbued with hozho, that Hillerman is simultaneously able to fuse what it is to be Navajo with his goal of entertainment. In the process of doing so, his writing develops depth and complexity.

Significant to a discussion of Hillerman's fiction is the difference in form between the novel and the romance that John Chase outlines in The American Novel and Its Traditions. The major difference between the novel and the romance, as Chase sees it, lies in the way each views reality, a reality expressed through character as well as through action and plot. The novel, he says,

renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. It takes a group of people and sets them going about the business of life. We come to see these people in their real complexity of temperament and motive. … Character is more important than action and plot and probably the tragic or comic actions of the narrative will have the primary purpose of enhancing our knowledge of and feeling for an important character, a group of characters, or a way of life [my italics]. The events that occur will usually be plausible, given the circumstances, and if the novelist includes a violent or sensational occurrence in his plot, he will introduce it only into [already prepared for] scenes.


In contrast, the romance, Chase says,

feels free to render reality in less volume and detail. It tends to prefer action to character, and action will be freer in a romance than in a novel, encountering … less resistance from reality. … The characters, probably rather two-dimensional types, will not be complexly related to each other or to society or to the past. … [W]here the novelist would arouse our interest in a character by exploring his origin [my italics], the romancer will probably do so by enveloping it in mystery. Character itself becomes, then, somewhat abstract and ideal, so much so in some romances that it seems to be merely a function of plot. The plot we may expect to be highly colored. Astonishing events may occur, and these are likely to have symbolic or ideological, rather than a realistic, plausibility.


If we were to accept Hillerman's classification of his writing as purely entertainment, then as readers we should find the writing following more closely the structure of romance, with its primary attention to action and secondary attention to character development. Instead, as Chase defines the differences between these two forms, we find that Hillerman has grown from writing romance-as-entertainment into writing novels-that-entertain. Through the increasing complexity of his two main protagonists and their interplay with the culture of which they are an integral part, his art moves from romance to novel.

Much has been written about Hillerman's portrayal of Navajo culture through these two Navajo tribal policemen, Leaphorn and Chee, and how they help restore the all-important Navajo concept of hozho to that universe. With Leaphorn and Chee, Hillerman explores the ways crime has splintered this harmony and then sets about restoring that harmony through a series of detecting steps able to be pursued only by protagonists well-versed in the Navajo Way. The first three of Hillerman's ten mysteries set on the 25,000 square mile Navajo Reservation, The Blessing Way (1970), Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), and Listening Woman (1978), focus on Leaphorn, the older, yet surprisingly modern Navajo. The second three, People of Darkness (1980), The Dark Wind (1982), and The Ghostway (1984), focus on Chee, the younger, yet more traditional detective, who aspires to be a yataali, a Navajo singer, along with his job as a Navajo tribal policeman. Then, beginning with Skinwalkers (1986), and continuing through A Thief of Time (1988), Talking God (1989), and Coyote Waits (1990), Hillerman brings the two detectives together.

It is in these last four novels, when Leaphorn and Chee operate together to solve the crimes which disrupt the harmony of the Navajo world, that Hillerman approaches more closely than ever before the accurate portrayal of that body of Navajo beliefs and traditions which comprise the Navajo Way. And as he focuses more on portraying these traditions and beliefs, the action—the strong, linear thrust of the detective story mode—loses its momentum; instead the narration takes on the apparently circular motion of a Native American storytelling event in which many seemingly disparate threads become woven together.

In her essay “Whose Dream Is This Anyway?” Paula Gunn Allen describes Native American tribal narratives as possessing “a circular structure, incorporating event within event, piling meaning upon meaning, until the accretion finally results in a story.” Unlike Western fiction, such narratives are not “tied to any particular time line, main character, or event.” Instead, each “is tied to a particular point of view—that of the tribe's tradition—and to a specific idea—that of the ritual tradition and accompanying perspective that inform the narrative. Ritual provides coherence and significance to traditional narrative as it does to traditional life” (The Sacred Hoop, 79).

Focusing on the impact of this narrative tradition on the individual, Gunn continues:

Entry into the narrative tradition enables individuals to realize that the significance of their own lives stems in large part from their interlocking connections with the lives of all the others who share a particular psychospiritual tradition. It lets people realize that individual experience is not isolate but is part of a coherent and timeless whole, providing them with a means of personal empowerment and giving shape and direction to their lives.


The realization of interlocking connections, the incorporation of circularity, and the focus on characterization move Hillerman's fiction into the spectrum of the novel. He imbues both Leaphorn and Chee with “Navajo” means of personal empowerment, though the shape and direction in each one's life are somewhat different. They both share in the tradition, the common bond of knowledge which, for the Navajo, forms the concept of hozho. Yet in developing his characters, Hillerman allows them to differ in their interpretations of how that hozho, that harmony, can be re-established. Hillerman achieves his feeling of inexorable circularity by juxtaposing in the same novel his two protagonists, each with his own philosophy of crime solving, each with his own interpretation of the Navajo Way. By giving much fuller attention to characterization, which brings with it a slower, more measured action reminiscent of the Navajo Way, Hillerman is able to both enlarge and enrich the traditional detective story genre to create his own.

Hillerman's detectives—and the art that creates the structure around them—evolve in each successive novel with this closer portrayal of the Navajo Way. Initially attracted to the genre because of its brevity and tight structure, which were closely aligned with his journalistic background, Hillerman becomes more complex as a writer as he further explores the Navajo universe. As Dorothy Sayers comments in her study of detective fiction, “The Omnibus of Crime,” when the detective being created “ceases to be [the] impenetrable and infallible [detective of the British mystery] and becomes a man touched with the feelings of our infirmities, so the rigid technique of the art necessarily expands. …” (Detective Fiction, 376). That is what happens with Hillerman's fiction.

Leaphorn and Chee are not like the supremely sophisticated and low-key British detectives such as Margery Allingham's Albert Campion or Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey. Neither are they quite like the hardboiled Continental Op, or Chandler's Philip Marlowe, whose “attempts to unravel the mystery,” as Stefano Tani notes in The Doomed Detective, “often clash against his own impulses and against a ‘reality’ which is no longer explained and constricted within the optimism and rationality of nineteenth-century positivism but rather has been reinterpreted in a questioning fashion by the then recent theories about relativism and the unconscious” (23). Leaphorn and Chee lie somewhere in between these opposites. They are unique, and it is this uniqueness which Hillerman uses to his advantage in creating his own genre: the anthropological mystery.

When Hillerman first introduces each character separately, each protagonist is an extreme, two-dimensional version of what he will later become. Leaphorn is the quintessential modern, pragmatic Navajo interested in bringing the Navajo world into the twentieth century through up-to-date police methodology; Chee is the traditional, intuitive Navajo whose method of detection relies too frequently on knowledge of age-old Navajo ritual and belief. Only when Hillerman brings his two protagonists together, first in Skinwalkers and then in the successive three novels, do Leaphorn and Chee develop fully into complex characters, each moving from his extreme stereotype of modern or traditional to become a more balanced unit whose personal growth is required to resolve the conflict. One of the most visible ways Hillerman achieves this development is by contrasting each protagonist with a female mirror image who highlights each one's struggle to achieve harmony, often with disastrous and heart-wrenching results. Only after substituting that mirror image with a more compatible love interest is each protagonist able to follow the Navajo Way; it takes all four characters, male and female, to reach the balance with the natural world essential to the Navajo world view.

On the surface Leaphorn and Chee appear similar. They are both Navajo, and both have degrees in anthropology, Leaphorn a B.A. and M.S. from Arizona State and Chee a B.A. from the University of New Mexico. Leaphorn served with the FBI before returning to the reservation to become a Navajo tribal policeman, and Chee at one point had his application accepted by the agency before ultimately deciding to remain on the reservation with the tribal police. In addition, they were both about the same age, their mid-twenties, when they became policemen. But there the similarity ends. Their opposing world views initially create a tension when Hillerman brings them together for the first time in Skinwalkers. This tension is gradually resolved through the next four novels. For one thing, now in his mid- to late forties, Leaphorn is almost twice Chee's age. More importantly, Leaphorn's perspective has developed into a thoroughly modern one that is both more cynical and more attuned to the white world. On the other hand, Chee, though younger, follows the traditional Navajo way of life, attempting to juggle his life as a tribal policeman with becoming a yataali. Hillerman explains the difference, saying he uses Leaphorn “if I want the older, more sophisticated fellow more comfortable with white ways, Chee if I need the younger, more traditional cop who is still curious about the dominant American culture” (TM, 38).

In the first three anthropological mysteries he writes, where Leaphorn is the protagonist, Hillerman carefully constructs a character at ease in both worlds. Leaphorn's degrees in anthropology often shape his responses to clues, giving them the white man's rational edge, an edge which frequently causes Leaphorn to concentrate more on the sociological aspects of crime on the reservation. An early passage about Leaphorn in The Blessing Way highlights this rationality:

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 to behave. He counted on that and upon his own ability to sort out the chaos of observed facts and find them in this natural order. Leaphorn knew from experience that he was unusually adept at this. As a policeman, he found it to be a talent which saved him a great deal of labor.


To counter this overly rational aspect of Leaphorn's character, Hillerman creates a wife for him, Emma, who is a traditional Navajo, a woman who follows the Navajo Way and softens Leaphorn's harder edges. Interestingly, Emma does not get developed immediately; there is only one brief mention of her being Leaphorn's bride in The Blessing Way, and she does not appear again until she becomes an essential foil for Leaphorn's development in Skinwalkers. Indeed, even Leaphorn's character itself does not develop much over the first three novels; only as the older, more mature Leaphorn serving as a contrast to Chee are his characteristics more finely drawn.

When Chee first appears in People of Darkness, his character is much more fully developed than Leaphorn's had been in The Blessing Way, in large part because Hillerman found that he could not make Leaphorn work with the concept he had for this novel. “I had developed Lt. Joe Leaphorn and couldn't change him later to satisfy new plot needs,” Hillerman said. “He is a sophisticated, rather skeptical man … [who] had moved away from the traditions of his people and his religion. He knew too much about white people and white ways, and thus had lost some of his surprise and curiosity about the white values to do what I wanted to do in the fourth book. …” (“I Am Carrying Jim Chee's Library Card,” 2-3).

Instead, Hillerman created Chee, developing as part of his character a tension between traditional Navajo beliefs and white man detective thinking. In contrast with his delay in creating Emma, Hillerman immediately creates a foil for Jim Chee in the form of Mary Landon, a blue-eyed, blonde biligaani schoolteacher, who throughout succeeding novels continues to highlight the tension within Chee's character. He first meets her in People of Darkness and by the end of the novel is thoroughly enamored of her. Though no mention of Mary appears in the next novel, The Dark Wind, by The Ghostway readers learn through flashbacks that the friendship has developed into a full-blown affair fraught with tensions brought about by Mary's wanting Chee to renounce the Navajo way of life and join the FBI.

Throughout The Ghostway, partially set in a Los Angeles that constantly reminds him of Mary Landon's world, Chee is plagued by doubts, vacillating about which world to live in. Initially he decides to give up the Navajo way of life:

He was right, this decision he was making. … He would be wrong to lose her. Having made his decision, he set about confirming it—thinking of all the things that were wrong with his job, with the reservation, with the Navajo culture. Making comparisons: This hospital room and the cold discomfort of his grandmother's hogan; the security of life with a regular paycheck and the sheep rancher's endless nerve-wracking dependence on rain that wouldn't fall, comparing the comforts of white society with the unemployment and poverty of the People.


Yet the next day, driving home to the reservation from Los Angeles, Chee was again assailed by doubts:

He felt depressed, nervous, frustrated, irritated, and generally miles from that condition for which the Navajo word is hozho. It means a sort of blend of being in harmony with one's environment, at peace with one's circumstances, content with the day, devoid of anger, and free from anxieties. Chee thought of his neglected studies to become a yataali, a shaman whose work it would be to restore his fellow Navajos to hozho. Physician, heal thyself, he thought. He drove eastward on Interstate 40 faster than he should, glum and disgruntled. Mary Landon hung in his mind—a problem he had solved but which refused to stay solved.


The problem is solved for Chee by Mary. Ghostway ends with Chee returning to find Mary's letter announcing that she loves him too much to force him into becoming a white man. Instead, she goes back to Wisconsin to attend graduate school, leaving Chee with the faint promise that she might return some day to join him on the reservation. That brings us to Skinwalkers, where all four characters appear in full development.

Skinwalkers opens with Leaphorn worrying about Emma's illness, an illness that he fears is the onset of Alzheimer's disease, and with Chee still trying to resolve his conflict of what to do about Mary. By using these two female counterparts as foils, Hillerman highlights both the similarities and the contrasts of his two protagonists.

Here Hillerman more fully delineates the contrast between Leaphorn and Emma, though this is done entirely in retrospect. Rather than interaction through dialogue as occurs between Chee and Mary Landon, all that readers learn about Emma is seen through Leaphorn's eyes. Emphasizing the contrast between Leaphorn's affinity with the white world and Emma's traditional Navajo ties, Hillerman reveals through Leaphorn's musings that although “[h]is mother had buried his umbilical cord at the roots of a piñon beside their hogan—the traditional Navajo ritual for binding a child to his family and his people … for Leaphorn, Emma was the tie. A simple physical law. Emma could not be happy away from the Sacred Mountains. He could not be happy away from Emma” (Skinwalkers, 96). Throughout this novel, Hillerman continues building the tension created by Emma's illness while fleshing out her character so that by the end of the book we have learned much about her traditional outlook in contrast to Leaphorn's, as well as his complete devotion to her. Hope is restored for this relationship in the last chapters as Leaphorn learns that Emma does not have Alzheimer's after all but rather a brain tumor. Not only are her chances of surviving surgery better than ninety-nine percent, but the chances that the tumor is nonmalignant are over seventy-six percent. An elated Leaphorn allows himself hope: “Emma, who had been lost forever, was found again. She would live. She would be herself again” (202).

While Leaphorn's and Emma's future ends on a note of promise, the gap between Chee and Mary Landon widens in this novel. Through additional letters from Mary, Chee comes to realize that there really is no hope for a continuing relationship, even though at first the promise had been there. We learn that Chee had visited Mary in Wisconsin, where her father “had been painfully polite and had asked Chee endless questions about the Navajo religion and had looked at him as Chee thought Chee might look at a man from another planet” (109). Analyzing his feelings as a “mixture of happiness and sorrow” while noting that her salutations had changed from “Darling” to “Dearest Jim” (110) in her latest letter, Chee interprets her actually to be saying, “I promised I would come back to you at the end of summer, but now I am going away. Or, rephrased again, former lover, you are now a friend” (119). Though it takes two more novels to completely resolve his feelings for Mary Landon, for the most part that chapter in Chee's life is closed. Enter Janet Pete, Navajo lawyer.

Even while Chee is resolving his feelings about Mary Landon, Hillerman introduces a new foil in the form of Janet Pete, who is the defense counsel assigned to a man Chee has arrested for murder. Throughout the rest of Skinwalkers as well as the next three novels, Hillerman builds a new relationship for Chee, one more appropriately suited to his traditional outlook. Janet is not a traditional Navajo like Leaphorn's Emma; far from it. But she is Navajo and she understands Chee's conflicts, especially as she is often subject to the same misgivings he has. She, too, has been involved in a relationship with a biligaani, her mentor who is also a lawyer; she, too, is faced with its dissolution. Though in Talking God she has left the reservation to practice law in Washington with her lover, at the end of this novel she has decided to return to the reservation. Coyote Waits revolves around the growing relationship between Chee and Janet Pete, at once highlighting their differences in outlook while bringing them closer together. In fact, Hillerman uses Pete to soften Chee's often rigid traditional views so that ultimately Chee mellows, moving toward a more balanced perspective as a Navajo tribal policeman.

Throughout Chee's growing relationship with Janet Pete, Leaphorn is experiencing his own difficulties. Left on the positive note of Emma's pending recovery at the end of Skinwalkers, Hillerman's readers are shocked to find at the beginning of Thief of Time that Emma is dead, felled by the one percent chance of not successfully recovering from surgery. Deprived of this life-giving relationship, Leaphorn is desolate and has determined to retire from the agency. In the next two novels, Hillerman continues to develop Leaphorn's character in response to this devastation so that he, too, gradually changes, moving from a pragmatic, non-Navajo extreme to a more balanced view of life. Initially unable to deal in any way with Emma's death, even to leaving halfway through the four-day traditional mourning period, Leaphorn eventually reaches a point where he accepts her death, though he still misses her.

The turning point in Leaphorn's grief comes in Talking God when he uncharacteristically asks Chee to perform a sing for him. When Chee later tells Janet Pete he had performed a Blessing Way for Leaphorn, Pete's incredulity underscores the change in Leaphorn's character: “The famous Leaphorn? Grouchy Joe? I thought he was … agnostic. Or skeptical. … I didn't think he believed in curing ceremonials and things like that” (128). Chee's response indicates just how far towards the center Leaphorn has come as he thinks back on the sing: “It had … been nice. … Everything had gone beautifully. … And when the final singing had been finished Old Man Leaphorn had, in some way difficult for Chee to define, seemed to be healed of the sickness that had been riding him. The bleakness had been gone. He had seemed back in harmony. Content” (128-29).

Like Chee, then, by the opening of Coyote Waits Leaphorn is back in harmony, in balance with nature. And also like Chee, Leaphorn is ready for a new relationship, one which will help maintain this new harmony. And Hillerman obliges. He introduces a new foil for Leaphorn's character in the form of Louise Bourebonette, a biligaani associate professor of American Studies at Northern Arizona University whose main interest is in comparative mythology, the evolution of myth inside cultures. The stage is set for a burgeoning relationship that has Leaphorn asking Bourebonette at the end of the novel if she would be interested in accompanying him on a trip to China.

Thus Coyote Waits, Hillerman's most recent novel, becomes his richest in terms of complex characters. Not only have his two main protagonists evolved from opposite extremes into balanced characters who, each in his own way, follow the Navajo Way, they are complemented by female counterparts who, while retaining their own identity, allow these two protagonists to function together as a unified component to solve crimes. Hillerman has said that at first he thought how symmetrical it would be if he wrote three Leaphorn mysteries and three Chee mysteries, then three with Leaphorn and Chee together. That would be enough. But, he says,

the way my mind works, when I'm starting a book it is the only thing I can think about. As I get closer to finishing it though, I find myself hustling along because I've already got another one waiting to get written. And it's a better one and I want to get started on it, see, and that's the way it's been every time.

(TM, 90)

Fortunately for Hillerman's fans, Coyote Waits is already one novel beyond those he originally planned for his Navajo protagonists. With any luck, these complex characters and their female counterparts, whose development has moved Hillerman's writing well beyond the realm of mere entertainment, will be around a long time, solving crimes on the Navajo Reservation and bringing hozho to that world.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Whose Dream Is This Anyway?: Remythologizing and Self-definition in Contemporary American Indian Fiction.” In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon, 1986. 76-101.

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Traditions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1957.

Hillerman, Tony and Ernie Bulow. Talking Mysteries. Albuquerque: UNMP, 1991.

Hillerman, Tony. The Blessing Way. New York: Avon, 1970.

———. Dance Hall of the Dead. New York: HarperCollins, 1973.

———. Listening Woman. New York: Avon, 1978.

———. People of Darkness. New York: Avon, 1980.

———. The Dark Wind. New York: Avon, 1982.

———. The Ghostway. New York: Avon, 1984.

———. Skinwalkers. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

———. “I Am Carrying Jim Chee's Library Card.” book talk, 16:3 (July 1987), 1-3.

———. A Thief of Time. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

———. Talking God. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.

———. Coyote Waits. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Sayers, Dorothy. “The Omnibus of Crime.” In Detective Fiction: Crime and Compromise. Ed. Dick Allen and David Chacko. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974. 651-83.

Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1984.

Leonard Engel (essay date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Engel, Leonard. “Landscape and Place in Tony Hillerman's Mysteries.” Western American Literature 28, no. 2 (summer 1993): 111-22.

[In the following essay, Engel examines Hillerman's use of landscape and place in Dance Hall of the Dead and Listening Woman, noting the importance of each to Leaphorn's search for a Navajo identity.]

Beginning with The Blessing Way (1970), and continuing with Dance Hall of the Dead (1973) and Listening Woman (1978), Tony Hillerman features the resourceful and extremely logical Lt. Leaphorn. Leaphorn seeks what may be seen as a central truth of his Navajo background, taught by the female deity Changing Woman—“that the only goal for man was beauty, and that beauty was found only in harmony, and that … harmony of nature was a matter of dazzling complexity.” Leaphorn reads the point of the lesson as emphasizing the “interdependency of nature”; there is in all things “a pattern, and in this pattern, the beauty of harmony.”

One might distill from this maxim Leaphorn's raison d'être, his goal as a police officer in solving crimes, and his reason for deciding to become a cop in the first place. Finding clues, sifting evidence, following tracks, that is, searching out the pattern in things, if pursued, should logically lead, not only to the solution of a crime, but to the “beauty of harmony” and ultimately to the “interdependency of nature.”

In spite of these inspired words and high-minded thoughts, looking for the pattern has on more than one occasion exposed Leaphorn to some mighty evils and endangered his life. In evil and dangerous circumstances, one can clearly see Leaphorn's similarity to other well-known fictional detectives. C. Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer, to name a few, have all seen plenty of evil and have been at serious risk. And like Leaphorn, these famous crime solvers have certainly looked for a pattern in their investigations and have often found it, but to imagine Spade, Marlowe, or any of them, believing that searching for the pattern would lead to the “beauty of harmony” and the interdependence of nature would be ludicrous. They search for pattern and solve crime because their client is paying them, or because it's their job and they pride themselves on doing it well, or because they're tough and smart and nobody else can do it or wants to, or because they're just plain curious.

These reasons partially explain Leaphorn's search as well, for most of his cases are police procedurals, and looking for pattern in crimes is part of his job. However, these reasons do not necessarily satisfy Leaphorn's sense of justice, nor do they embrace his major concern—they don't, as it were, represent the bottom line in his epistemology. Leaphorn's persistent, almost obsessive, search for pattern fulfills not only his role as a tribal policeman, but verifies his perception of the truth of the Navajo Way. This logically means reestablishing his position in relation to the earth; therefore, a vital relationship to the land is a crucial ingredient both to Leaphorn's detecting techniques and to his identity. This essay will examine Hillerman's use of landscape and place in two of his novels, Dance Hall of the Dead and Listening Woman; I will argue that Leaphorn's picking up clues and “remembering tracks” lead not only to his awareness of beauty and the “interdependency of nature,” but ultimately to his Navajo identity.

On the surface, Hillerman's use of landscape imagery is not unlike that depicted in traditional western fiction and film where there is a well established connection between the hero and the land. This enduring connection in Westerns of the past continues into the present in contemporary fictions, like Hillerman's, and in recent Western films like Dances with Wolves,Unforgiven,The Last of the Mohicans, and A River Runs through It. However, Hillerman refashions this relationship between hero and landscape in a new and startling way. Hillerman renders an intricate, multidimensional, Native American mythos that places the land at the center of its belief system. What Hillerman is dramatizing in his fictions might best be understood by considering some of Barry Lopez's remarks about landscape (although Lopez is not writing specifically about Hillerman's fictions). Lopez discusses two kinds of landscape, “one outside the self, the other within”; the one outside “is the one we see.” The interior one is a kind of “projection within a person,” and it responds “to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes” (“Landscape and Narrative,” 64-65). Lopez relates these ideas to Native Americans and to the Navajo specifically. “Among the Navajo and … many other native peoples, the land is thought to exhibit a sacred order. That order is the basis of ritual.” “Each individual … undertakes to order his interior landscape according to the exterior landscape. To succeed in this means to achieve a balanced state of mental health.” Lopez mentions the various sung ceremonies of the Navajo, such as the Blessingway, the Enemyway, the Coyoteway, and focuses briefly on the Beautyway, “a spiritual invocation of the order of the exterior universe. … The purpose of this invocation is to recreate in the individual who is the subject of the Beautyway ceremony that same order, to make the individual again a reflection of the myriad enduring relationships of the landscape” (67). Lopez goes on to argue that storytelling “draws on relationships in the exterior landscape and projects them unto the interior landscape.” It uses “all the elements of story … in a harmonious way to reproduce the harmony of the land in the individual's interior” (68).

What I am suggesting in this essay is that Hillerman's use of the land—landscape imagery and a sense of place—in telling his story follows what Lopez has articulated and is at the core of Leaphorn's search for pattern both in his professional life as a Navajo policeman and in his private life as a thoughtful person caught between the White world and that of the Native American. He appears as a Navajo agnostic; still conversant with his beliefs, he seems to have put them on hold while he observes the strange practices of the Whites. The wide gap between the two worlds, the White and the Native American, is metaphorically suggested by the “apparent” vast emptiness of the land and the distances Leaphorn travels in his search for pattern in the crimes. One can discern on a symbolic level that Leaphorn's quest for pattern (as Lopez suggests for the Navajo) is really an attempt to order his own “interior landscape,” and “to achieve a balanced state of mental health.” As already indicated, this ultimately means reestablishing his relationship with the earth and understanding his Navajo identity. For the land is not the empty waste it appears to many Whites, but a complex, harmonious whole, exhibiting, as Lopez notes concerning the sung ceremonies “a sacred order … the basis of ritual.” Hillerman does not generally have Leaphorn participate in the ritual ceremonies for personal rejuvenation, but his search for pattern as metaphor of the quest for wholeness is unmistakable. It is as if Leaphorn's journeys into the world of the Whites and his dealings with them create a moral and spiritual morass that he can be released from only by the intellectual rigors of finding the pattern and eventually solving the crime.

Thus, one can see that creating the landscape of the Southwest is crucial in Hillerman's writing. Landscape imagery provides not only the frame for the crime and its mystery, but also the ambience for Leaphorn's search for pattern and quest for wholeness. When questioned about creating such a distinct sense of place, Hillerman has admitted that although he may begin a book not knowing exactly where it is going, he never begins “a chapter without a detailed and exact vision of the place it will happen, the nature of the actors in the scene, the mood of the protagonist, the temperature, direction of the breeze, the aromas it carries, time of day, the way the light falls, the cloud formations” (“Mystery, Country Boys, and the Big Reservation,” 139).

Indeed, Hillerman's imagery has been noted by critics; Michael Parfit writes, “Hillerman describes the Navajo landscape … the way Agatha Christie would write about the English countryside …—as a natural part of the environment” (“Weaving Mysteries That Tell of Life Among the Navajos,” 94). Jane Bakerman points out that Hillerman's “trick of stressing the effects of the ages upon the landscape … [underscores] the ancientness of the Indian cultures which occupy it” (“Joe Leaphorn and the Navajo Way: Tony Hillerman's Indian Detective Fiction,” 10). Similarly, Fred Erisman has written “Physical place for [Hillerman] is more than just a backdrop; it is a central element.” His settings appear “in economic, carefully drawn descriptions that evoke the diversity and the majesty of the Southwest's landscape. He recognizes that place has an impact upon people” (“Hillerman's Uses of the Southwest,” 11-12).

Place also has an impact on events, on the action in Hillerman's narratives, and, in an odd way, on the legal system. In Dance Hall of the Dead, for example, while thinking about a dispute between an old Singer and a woman to whom the Singer had given money to make a down payment (which she never made) on a truck he was purchasing, Leaphorn ruminates about the importance of one's position in relation to the land. The case should have been simple, Leaphorn thinks, but it wasn't. The quarrel involved where they were standing when the money changed hands; if they were standing where she said, “they were on Navajo reservation land and under tribal-federal jurisdiction. But if they stood where the Singer claimed, they were over on nonreservation allocation land and the case would probably be tried under New Mexico embezzlement law” (DHTD [Dance Hall of the Dead], 9). To seek the truth in such difficult circumstances would, indeed, be a task for Solomon, but it is just such situations of place and landscape in relation to people and events that Hillerman explores.

To be sure, Hillerman's fictional recreation of place in regard to the legal system is firmly grounded on real life situations. Tom Quirk has pointed out that in “a lecture some years ago, Roland Dart, then Chief of the Navajo Tribal Police, remarked that it was not uncommon to call in a surveyor to determine the exact location of a criminal act in order to ascertain jurisdiction in the case.” Quirk also documents a rape case that presented serious location and jurisdictional problems.

It appears that the rape took place in an automobile parked across the boundary separating state and Navajo lands, and it had to be determined whether the criminal act took place in the front or back seat of the car. The distinction was an important one, for statutory rape in New Mexico may be a first degree felony and carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment (New Mexico Statutes 31-18-3); whereas the Navajo Tribal code provides a maximum penalty of six months' hard labor and a fine of $500.

(“Justice on the Reservation,” 366)

In Dance Hall, Leaphorn is assigned a case involving the murder of Ernesto Cata, a twelve-year-old Zuni boy; he is to find the missing, chief suspect, a young Navajo friend of the victim by the name of George Bowlegs. In assigning Leaphorn this job, the Zuni Chief of Police Pasquaanti describes the tracks at the place where the murdered boy was found and relates “there was a place where somebody wearing moccasins … had been standing around. … [H]e waited quite a while. Crushed down some weeds.” But, Pasquaanti concludes, the terrain is “mostly rock. … Hard to read anything.” While Pasquaanti is speaking, Leaphorn thinks he might visit the spot himself: “he could find tracks where a Zuni couldn't” (DHTD, 15). One might add that Leaphorn could find and read tracks where almost no one else could, and the key to his tracking George Bowlegs and the murderer, and eventually to solving the mystery—at least for himself—lies in this fact.

Leaphorn's awareness of and sensitivity to the land and to the indentations and imprints made on landscape formations by animals and humans and, of course, by wind and rain, are keys to his tracking abilities. But these abilities, as finely honed as they are, require tremendous concentration and necessitate a proximity to and close study of the earth; Leaphorn has to actually be on it, walk on it, even crawl on it. When he's not on it, when he's riding around in his van, Hillerman indicates, Leaphorn's mind tends to wander, to be distracted by other details, and he misses important signs in the landscape he should have noticed.

For example, shortly after the scene described above, Leaphorn, while driving over some rough country, blows a tire; the road, Hillerman relates, was “nothing more than a seldom used wagon track. One could follow it through the summer's growth of weeds and grama grass if one paid proper attention. Leaphorn hadn't. And the left front wheel had slammed into a weed-covered pothole and ruptured its sidewall” (DHTD, 16). A few minutes later, Leaphorn allows the jack to slip on the slope of the pothole, almost causing another accident; he then gives his undivided attention to the job at hand and begins “laboriously chipping out a firm base in the rocky soil with the jack handle” (DHTD, 17). In other words, not until Leaphorn concentrates both mind and body on his task in relation to the land and immerses himself in the dirt, as it were, does he complete the job successfully.

As the following description indicates, however, Leaphorn's mind is never far from an awareness and appreciation of the land. After resting from changing the tire, Leaphorn “saw the beauty … the red of the cliffs, and everywhere the blue, gold, and gray of dry country autumn. But soon … this landscape would change to solid white. And George Bowlegs, if he was hiding somewhere in it, would be in trouble. He would survive … until the snow came. … With the first storm, the mornings would be subzero. On the first day, George Bowlegs would be hungry. Then he would be weak. And then he would freeze” (DHTD, 18-19). These ominous lines suggest that Leaphorn, while fully capable of appreciating the beauty of the land, is also aware of the danger and hazards the changing seasons bring. Landscape is both beautiful and forbidding; it is also, Hillerman implies, imbued with a naturalistic indifference Leaphorn must never forget.

It is important to remember, as Kenneth Helphand notes, that “in the classic Western the landscape is viewed as an antagonist. The Western landscape is a noble savage endowed with heroic strength and virtue that is accentuated by the sublime drama of its scenic landscape” (“Landscape Films,” 4). He goes on to argue that the hero often shares these traits and exploits them in his mission of countering evil, saving the innocent, and restoring order. While Hillerman is not writing a “classic Western” and his landscape is not necessarily the antagonist, he is using the land complexly, depicting it as a character endowed with both human and naturalistic traits. This has the effect of heightening the tension of the mystery and deepening the character of Leaphorn, while dramatizing Leaphorn's relationship with the land.

In effect, the early examples from Dance Hall provide a metaphor of Leaphorn's relationship with the land. When he's in tune with it, fully concentrating on reading the landscape and following tracks closely, as his long trek later in the book will demand, he moves slowly but inexorably toward solving the crime, but when he's not concentrating, when his mind wanders, accidents happen, such as the blown tire. Leaphorn's job as a Navajo cop, Hillerman suggests, indeed, his whole being and sense of self, form an intimate relationship with the land.

As indicated earlier, Leaphorn's tracking ability is extraordinary. When Ernesto Cata's body is found (in Dance Hall) and the scene of the crime determined, Leaphorn is virtually able to reenact the murder in his mind through a close reading of the tracks. Identifying the Man Who Wore Moccasins (whom they believe to be the murderer), Leaphorn discovers that this man “had waited among the junipers out of sight … stepped out into the open … [and] stood very close [to Cata]. Then Cata had taken three long-stride steps downhill and fallen, and pumped his blood out onto the thirsty earth. The Man Who Wore Moccasins … [then] wheeled the bike to the bloody place, loaded Cata upon it, and rolled it away” (DHTD, 73-74).

An amazing recreation simply from analyzing a few prints on the earth! But as complete as it sounds, it leaves Leaphorn with more questions than it answers. “He was finding no order in his thoughts, none of that … abstract pleasure which the precise application of logic always brought to him. Instead there was only … effect without cause, action without motive, patternless chaos. Leaphorn's orderly mind found this painful” (DHTD, 74-75). The tracks he is able to discern at this point do not solve problems; in his logical search for pattern and “cause and effect,” these tracks lead only to more confusion. However, his reading of them does advance his knowledge and is a step toward determining the final pattern which will lead to a solution.

The ultimate test of Leaphorn's tracking ability comes when he and Susanne (a friend of George Bowlegs) follow Bowlegs's long and complicated trail to the “Dance Hall of the Dead,” a dance ground of spirits, according to Zuni belief, where, “when you're beyond life, with no labors … you spend your time dancing” (DHTD, 146). Obsessed with Zuni lore and ritual, Bowlegs, it appears, was determined to find this sacred ground as part of his quest to become a Zuni, and Leaphorn is determined to find Bowlegs before the person who killed Ernesto Cata kills Bowlegs. Arriving at the lake he believes was Bowlegs's destination, Leaphorn begins a tracking pattern: “He worked his way away from the lake, searching in an expanding circle along game trails and sandy drainage bottoms. … Within five minutes he found, clear and unmistakable, the shape of the left forefoot of George's horse. … Leaphorn then found the right front hoofprint in the open, so wind-erased that he would have missed it if he hadn't known where to look” (DHTD, 169-70). Once more Leaphorn recreates a plausible scenario through an analysis of the tracks. “First he [Leaphorn] found the way George had arrived. It took another fifteen minutes to sort out the footprints and determine the way the boy had left.” Leaphorn felt relief—“George had left under his own power” (DHTD, 182).

Again, Leaphorn reveals his amazing tracking ability, but he still has many unanswered questions. Feeling their weight and his own sense of urgency to find the killer before he kills again, Leaphorn seeks time for meditation in a secluded spot. Hillerman frames this interlude of epiphany for Leaphorn with a precise description of the landscape. Leaphorn “had picked the place carefully. It was a relatively comfortable spot with soft earth … and a sandstone slab for a backrest” on a ridge with a view overlooking the Zuni village where the Shalako ceremony—the climactic scene of the book—would begin shortly (DHTD, 213). Immersed in this landscape with an ideal view of the village, yet concealed by a growth of chamiso and a gnarled piñon, Leaphorn, holding a small piece of flint, carefully reviews each stage of the crimes and every facet of the mystery, and suddenly everything coalesces for him. “The fragment of flint in Leaphorn's palm became a sort of keystone. Around it the pieces of the puzzle of why Ernesto Cata had to die fell exactly into place” (DHTD, 219). “He sat stock-still, sorting it very precisely in chronological order, checking for flaws, assigning to each of those deeds which had seemed so irrational a logical cause. He knew why two murders had been committed. And he knew he couldn't prove it—could probably never prove it” (DHTD, 219-20).

Fortunately, he doesn't have to prove it. Despite Leaphorn's heroic attempts to prevent it, the murder of George Bowlegs will occur, but the murderer will be caught by the Zunis, who will administer their own justice for the sacrilege he has committed. That Leaphorn's sensitivity and closeness to the land—his awareness of the detail and nuance of the landscape, the climate, and the whole natural environment—have aided him in solving the crimes is clear. These crimes have caused disruption and disharmony in the area and have injected irrationality into his very logical mind. With the solution have come the restoration of harmony and the “interdependency of nature.” Although frustrated in his attempt to save George Bowlegs's life and deeply troubled over the actions of some of the white men, Leaphorn has reaffirmed his relationship with the land, revealing the Navajo Way and reasserting his true identity.

Landscape and place are equally important to Joe Leaphorn's finding the pattern and solving the mystery in Listening Woman. This novel opens with blind Margaret Cigaret, known as Listening Woman, administering to ill and elderly Hosteen Tso. She is then led into the nearby hills to a sand-floored cul-de-sac to meditate and listen to the earth tell her what has made Tso sick. Some time later, Hillerman relates, “Listening Woman pushed herself stiffly from the sand and got to her feet … still half immersed in the strangeness of the trance. It was as if she had gone into the rock, and through it into the Black World at the very beginning” (LW [Listening Woman.], 13). While she has been in this dream of being locked into the land, two murders have been committed, and the only thing that has saved her from death is her trance in this secluded place in the landscape.

Thus, early in Listening Woman Hillerman indicates the importance of landscape in his narrative and metaphorically suggests that when these crimes are solved, the detecting will be intricately connected with the earth, and the solution will require a thorough knowledge of and virtual immersion in the land. Before the end, Joe Leaphorn will be trapped—locked in, as it were, similarly to Listening Woman—in a massive, underground cave, and, to achieve his freedom and solve the mystery, he will have to read the darkened, underground landscape as scrupulously and accurately as he is able to read the landscape above ground. Foreshadowing this unique capability, Hillerman emphasizes that “In Leaphorn, the Navajo sensitivity to land and landscape was fine-tuned” (LW, 92).

Beginning his investigation of the two murders, Leaphorn discovers tracks (after a heavy rain) leading away from the Tso hogan, and they indicate two or three people and a dog. He follows the tracks across the canyon floor for three hours in the general direction of Hosteen Tso's secret cave, but with increasing uneasiness and an “unsettling sense of disorientation—of not knowing exactly where he was in terms of either direction or landmarks” (LW, 140). In a humorous, pointed irony, Hillerman records Leaphorn's temporary confusion by remarking that Leaphorn “who had never been lost in his life, didn't know exactly where he was.”

Fortunately, however, the confusion is short-lived, for Leaphorn is able to draw on other resources, such as his acute sense of smell, to calm his fears, and his knowledge of the constellations to learn his direction. The air at the canyon bottom, where he has been walking, is damp, so he can identify “the smell of wet sand, the resinous aroma of cedar, the vague perfume of piñon needles” and a dozen other scents. As soon as twilight fades and stars appear, the “stars of the constellation Ursa Minor became visible, and Leaphorn felt the relief of again knowing his direction exactly” (LW, 141). Thus, while this particular landscape has caused Leaphorn temporary confusion, his patience in waiting for night and his re-positioning himself in relation to the stars allow him to rediscover his location on the land.

During the chaotic events that follow, Leaphorn's “fine-tuned” knowledge of the landscape is literally all that saves him. When he is attacked by the dog, a vicious, two-hundred-pound cur, Leaphorn positions himself on the edge of a cliff and waits for it. The instant the dog leaps at him, Leaphorn does a clever turning maneuver (with the aid of the slick rock), so that the beast actually flings itself over the cliff to its death. Leaphorn is then detected by the dog's owner and cornered on a rock shelf surrounded by sheer wall. At the far end of the shelf, he discovers a split in the rock and a hole large enough to allow him to enter. To avoid being shot (Leaphorn had lost his gun in the scuffle with the dog), he climbs down into the hole to a cavity that leads to a large, underground cavern. His pursuers create a landslide of rock and rubble that blocks the hole he entered, and Leaphorn finds himself trapped in this cave with seemingly no way out (one is reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's numerous tales of underground confinements). However, if Leaphorn's careful reading of the landscape and tracking abilities are astute in the outside world of light, they also serve him well in this underground world of darkness. He doesn't panic, but keeps his reason intact, logically assessing and using his immediate surroundings to his best advantage. For instance, while sifting sand in the beam of his flashlight to determine the presence of any air currents, he sees the footprint of the dog:

He squatted, looking at the print and digesting what it meant. It meant, first, that he was not doomed to die entombed in this cave. The dog had found a way in. Leaphorn could find a way out. It meant, second, that the cavity Leaphorn had been following down from high up the cliff must be connected to a cavern that opened on the canyon bottom.

(LW, 165)

Shortly after this, Leaphorn discovers an underground pool and, after tasting the water, realizes that it must be part of Lake Powell “backing into the cave as the lake surface rose with spring runoff” (LW, 166). The water is fresh and has none of the alkaline taste of underground water. This clue leads to the discovery that the cave is the center of the murderer Goldrims's kidnapping operation, and Leaphorn is able to fit all the pieces together.

Why this cave was so important was clear to him now. On the surface of the earth, there was no way an operation like this could remain undetected. But this cave was not only a hiding hole under the earth; it was one whose existence was hidden behind a century of time. … The cave would have been entered only by water—on which no tracks can be followed.

(LW, 180-81)

This is also the secret cave that Hosteen Tso discovered, and Leaphorn now realizes why Tso had to be killed.

Through a series of deft moves, sensitivity to the land (both above and below ground), knowledge of how to hide and pursue, and, of course, a bit of luck, Leaphorn is able to neutralize Goldrims and his accomplice, rescue the victims, and get out of the cave alive.

Joe Leaphorn's search for pattern here as in other crimes leads gradually to his perception of the truth of the Navajo Way, to the harmony and “interdependency of nature,” which, in turn, lead him back to his roots. In effect, Leaphorn's job of detecting and solving crimes in Dance Hall of the Dead and Listening Woman fulfills not only his role as a tribal policeman, but serves to redefine him as a Navajo and reestablish his position in relation to the earth.

Works Cited

Bakerman, Jane S. “Joe Leaphorn and the Navajo Way: Tony Hillerman's Indian Detective Fiction.” Clues: A Journal of Detection, 2:1 (Spring-Summer 1981), 9-16.

Erisman, Fred. “Hillerman's Uses of the Southwest.” Roundup Quarterly, 1:4, Western Writers of America (Summer 1989), 9-18.

Helphand, Kenneth I. “Landscape Films.” Landscape Journal, 5:1 (Spring 1986), 1-8.

Hillerman, Tony. The Blessing Way. New York: Avon, 1970.

———. Dance Hall of the Dead. New York: Harper, 1973.

———. Listening Woman. New York: Avon, 1978.

———. “Mystery, Country Boys, and the Big Reservation.” In Colloquium on Crime, ed. Robin Winks. New York: Scribners, 1986.

Lopez, Barry. “Landscape and Narrative.” In Crossing Open Ground. New York: Scribners, 1988, pp. 61-71.

Parfit, Michael. “Weaving Mysteries That Tell of Life Among the Navajos.” Smithsonian, 21:9 (December 1990), 92-105.

Quirk, Tom. “Justice on the Reservation.” The Armchair Detective, 18:4 (Fall 1985), 364-70.

Further Reading

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Sobol, John. Tony Hillerman: A Public Life. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994, 128 p.

Sobol presents a biography of Hillerman.


Bakerman, Jane S. “Joe Leaphorn and the Navajo Way: Tony Hillerman's Indian Detective Fiction.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 2, no. 1 (spring-summer 1981): 9-16.

Bakerman offers an analysis of Hillerman's character Joe Leaphorn, his Navajo roots, and his relationship to mainstream culture.

Cox, Jack. “Mr. Congeniality: Mystery Writer Tony Hillerman Drops Hints about His Life, Legacy, and New Book.” Denver Post (2 February 2003): L1.

Hillerman discusses his career, his new book The Sinister Pig, his lifestyle, and provides some anecdotes from his past.

Erisman, Fred. “Hillerman's Uses of the Southwest.” Roundup Quarterly, 1, no. 4 (summer 1989): 9-18.

Erisman asserts that the locales of Hillerman's novels are as important as the characterizations, plots, motivations, and other elements in the books.

Greenberg, Martin, editor. The Tony Hillerman Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to His Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1994, 375 p.

Greenberg presents a critical introduction to Hillerman's novels.

Hillerman, Tony, and Ron Hamm. “Ron Hamm Interview with Tony Hillerman for Clues.Clues: A Journal of Detection 21, no. 2 (fall-winter 2000): 27-35.

Hillerman discusses the relationship between his writing and his teaching, the influence of Catholicism on his fiction, and the cultural role of the storyteller in modern society.

Parfit, Michael. “Weaving Mysteries That Tell of Life Among the Navajos.” Smithsonian 21, no. 9 (December 1990): 92-105.

Parfit offers an in-depth portrait of Hillerman, the settings for his novels, and several Navajo people, while recounting a trip with Hillerman to locales such as Albuquerque and Shiprock, New Mexico, and Tuba City, Arizona.

Quirk, Tom. “Justice on the Reservation.” Armchair Detective 18, no. 4 (fall 1985): 364-66, 368-70.

Quirk examines the characters of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee and the various plots of such works as The Blessing Way, Dance Hall of the Dead, Listening Woman, People of Darkness, and The Dark Wind.

Stasio, Marilyn. Review of The First Eagle, by Tony Hillerman. New York Times Book Review 103 (16 August 1998): 12.

Stasio praises Hillerman's strong narrative voice and skillful storytelling in The First Eagle.

Zappia, Susan. Review of The Fallen Man, by Tony Hillerman. Armchair Detective 30, no. 2 (spring 1997): 237.

Zappia asserts that The Fallen Man sustains what she feels to be the high quality of Hillerman's previous novels, particularly in its effective representation of Navajo people and culture.

Additional coverage of Hillerman's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 6, 40; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Bestsellers, Vol. 89:1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 42, 65, 97; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 62; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 206; DISCovering Authors Modules: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Mystery and Suspense Writers; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Vol. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 6; and Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2.

Charles Champlin (review date 3 October 1993)

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SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Wisdom Lends Justice a Hand.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 October 1993): 12.

[In the following review, Champlin argues that although Sacred Clowns is not the most dramatic in the Leaphorn/Chee series, the book is “one of the warmest and most pleasing of Hillerman's novels.”]

With The Blessing Way in 1970, Tony Hillerman staked an invincible claim on the Native American Southwest as a unique and fertile ground for mysteries. Hillerman's evocations of the austere beauty of the Four Corners country where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together have the force of poetry. His recordings of the place names and clans of the reservation country create a kind of litany: Coyote Wash and Standing Rock, Chivato Mesa and the Turquoise Mountain, the Bitter Water Dinee' and the Streams Come Together People.

The Blessing Way introduced Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police, by now a lieutenant in Sacred Clowns, his eleventh appearance. He is a widower, just awkwardly beginning to get social again—even contemplating a trip to China with Louisa, a university anthropologist.

His young deputy once more is Jim Chee, impetuous and independent-minded as before; very smart and, like Leaphorn, a man straddling (or sometimes caught between) an ancient and demanding heritage and the clangorous modern world of walkie-talkies and sophisticated greed. Jim Chee is also distracted by love for a feisty half-Navajo, half-Scots lawyer named Janet Pete, lately returned from Washington to practice closer to home.

There is crime at hand, the brutal and seemingly unrelated murders of a volunteer shop teacher at a mission school and a sacred clown-dancer at a pueblo. The link may be a missing teenager, who leads the officers on a dusty chase around the reservations.

Chee is also charged with solving a hit-and-run death, and the resolution of the subplot indicates that Chee has learned, like Leaphorn before him, that wisdom must occasionally lend justice a helping hand even if it is not endorsed by the letter of the law. It is Hillerman at his most quietly affecting.

The modern world intrudes as always: Environmental activists (occasionally scorned as tree-huggers) are fighting the exploitation of reservation lands; opportunists are, as in Thieves of Time, fattening on the sale of Native American artifacts—the engine of the plot in the new book.

Novels inevitably reveal their authors, whether the authors intend it or not. Hillerman, who grew up among Indians and attended an Indian school in his native Oklahoma, shows both a scholarly familiarity with the myths, beliefs and practices of the Navajos and the other tribes, but as well an affectionate and unpatronizing admiration for a hard-used people.

Hillerman also owns a fine sense of humor, gentle or robust as the situation demands. Chee is desperately worried that lawyer Janet's clan and his own may be so close as to constitute incest in Navajo belief and so preclude their marriage. He is enormously relieved to learn that the mother's clan is the determinant in these matters, and that Janet's clan MacDougal ancestry is not a problem. The reader is entitled to a gentle grin.

The new book is neither the most suspenseful nor the most active of the Leaphorn series. Both of the murders and the violent resolution all happen offstage. It is a Navajo police procedural, petty interagency jealousies and all. But Sacred Clowns is one of the warmest and most pleasing of Hillerman's novels. His affection for his characters—and for the real world in which they live and work—has never been more appealingly demonstrated.

Jean B. Palmer (review date November 1993)

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SOURCE: Palmer, Jean B. Review of New Mexico, Rio Grande, and Other Essays, by Tony Hillerman. History and Geography 23, no. 6 (November 1993): 38.

[In the following review, Palmer praises New Mexico, Rio Grande, and Other Essays, asserting that the collection is well-written and informative.]

If all state histories were as clearly, elegantly, and beautifully rendered as Hillerman's essay on New Mexico [in New Mexico, Rio Grande and Other Essays], how easy local history would be to acquire. The variety in the color photos by David Muench and Robert Reynolds adds further beauty to the text. Hillerman's essay describes in his relaxed, accessible style New Mexico's unique geography (“no other state offers such an abrupt contrast in landscape”), and its lengthy human history from the 25,000-year-old Sandia Man (the “First American”) through the Golden Age of the Pueblos and the invasion of the Spanish and the Anglo-Americans. Much of what Hillerman wrote of New Mexico in 1974 is timeless. I wonder if he would add anything from the intervening years? Santa Fe, for example, was a very different place in 1974. “A Canyon, an Egret and a Book” is a beautiful “how does a great writer write” essay. Hillerman, author of more than 20 books, explores how a visit to the real San Juan Canyon with its real snowy egret changed and determined the fictional characters in his mystery The Thief of Time. The “Rio Grande” follows the river from its origins at the Continental Divide to the Gulf of Mexico, a river matchless for its “richness of its history, its variety, or its power to stir the imagination.” The “empty, impoverished country west of Albuquerque” described in “Places for Spirits, Places for Ghosts” offers continual sustenance and inspiration for Hillerman; perhaps it will for his readers as well. Hillerman fans, aspiring writers, English, geography and history classes will find this book worthwhile.

Michael Porsche (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Porsche, Michael. “Journey into the Past: Tony Hillerman's A Thief of Time.Amerikastudien 39, no. 2 (1994): 183-95.

[In the following essay, Porsche focuses on A Thief of Time, arguing that the book fulfills the reader's desire for harmony and order through the development of characters who must come to terms with the past in order to restore balance to their world.]

No contemporary American writer since William Eastlake has made the landscape of the American Southwest as dominating a factor of his work as has Tony Hillerman. His series of mysteries—so far ten Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee adventures have been published—usually take place on the homeland of the Navajo Nation and adjacent tribal reservations in northern New Mexico. This area, which is almost as big as the New England states taken together, is today sparsely populated by about 200,000 Navajos. The region also presents a jurisdictional puzzle because a part of this reservation is the so-called checkerboard area, in which lots belonging to reservations of different nations—Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Pueblo, and Apache—alternate with areas subject to white American administration and jurisdiction, thus forming a strange mosaic or checkerboard pattern on the map. The Navajo Tribal Police shares responsibility and authority with county, state, and federal agencies. Its officers have to deal with the discouraging facts that constitute the Native Americans' dilemma in the contemporary industrial society dominated by white culture. As an additional obstacle, they face the resentment and distrust of their own people, who view them with natural suspicion as agents of the white power structure—although the Navajo are, of course, suspicious of any power structure. Some Navajo policemen cannot even speak the Navajo language and are thus further alienated from their people's culture through a white middle-class education.

All this constitutes a fundamental and existential tension within individuals, and between those who still cling to the old way and those who have turned their backs upon it. Certainly Tony Hillerman found that one could make good use of these tensions in a detective novel's protagonist who is a Navajo with two college degrees in anthropology, an agnostic who is married to a devout believer in the Navajo Way and who, in later novels, works with a younger colleague who is learning to become a shaman. By now it is well known that Hillerman had not planned anything like that originally, when he sent the first draft of his novel The Blessing Way (1970) on its round to the publishers, but had to be persuaded by editor Joan Kahn of Harper & Row to make the minor figure of an Indian detective into the central character.1

Tony Hillerman's mystery novels featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police have been highly successful over the past two decades. Although terms like “literary sensation” or “cult author,” which invariably appear in the blurbs of the paperback editions, are getting ever more short-lived on the literary scene, Hillerman has by now firmly established himself as one of the masters (and bestsellers) on the growing market of mystery novels.2 The reason for this extraordinary success lies in Hillerman's considerable abilities as a writer. But it is also certain that Hillerman and his publishers have cashed in on the increasing movement in crime literature which points away from the endless repetition of the classic hardboiled formula of the masters. This development, which has in a long process sought ways to emancipate the whodunit from the towering influence of masters like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, at the same time seems to have pushed the genre to its limits. Nevertheless, there are still some excellent practitioners of hardboiled detective fiction, who write in the vein of the old school, and the announcement on a paperback blurb that here at last is the true heir to Chandler's throne obviously still helps to sell a great number of books. But even as original an author as Loren Estleman—the main contender to the hardboiled title—seems to have written his lonely private eye Amos Walker, walking down the mean streets of Detroit, into a dead end.

The private eyes and the detectives of old have gradually stepped aside for a new breed of ultra-cynical crime solvers—not necessarily law enforces—who operate in realms of utmost horror and degeneration and who obey no rules but their warped personal codes of honor, like Andrew Vachss's hero Burke, who moves in the underworld of New York. Contemporary readers of crime fiction, like contemporary viewers of crime movies, seem to have developed a constant craving for more spectacular action and more exotic places, for more blood and wilder chase scenes. Plots have grown to be hardly more than fig-leaves for the accumulation of monstrous crimes and ultraviolent encounters between—well, the good guys and the bad guys, although these days one cannot always tell for sure where the line is to be drawn.

This, in drastic simplification, was the state of American crime fiction, when Tony Hillerman, professor of journalism at Albuquerque, New Mexico, arrived on the scene in 1970 with his first Navajo Tribal Police novel featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn. His remarkable achievement lies in his catering to a steadily growing audience of readers who get tired ever more quickly of the newest variations on a limited formulaic genre; he does so, however, without offering an abundancy of blood and corpses.3

As will be pointed out in the following discussion of Hillerman's recent novel A Thief of Time, the opposite seems to be the case. Hillerman, for all his mastery of the unfamiliar, if not exotic, background of his Navajo Reservation mysteries, clearly satisfies a fundamental desire that underlies the motivation of anyone opening a crime novel. Apart from the intellectual pleasure gained from an intricately woven plot or the tension of a dramatic action, crime fiction temporarily fulfills the readers' fundamental desire for harmony and order:

[The detective story] presents and presupposes not only a rational and therefore intelligible order but also an essentially stable and just social order in which the law is ultimately vindicated and sporadic outbreaks of violence subdued and punished. … The purpose and meaning of the closed and limited world on which the process of detection casts its search light is restored and reaffirmed.4

The hero of this ‘classical’ type of crime fiction will in the end restore law and order, help the weak, and preferably attractive, female clients, and the unjustly suspected. He will right wrongs and thus triumph, albeit temporarily, over the mean and evil elements, in both low and high places, of society. Increasingly, though, writers of contemporary American crime fiction find themselves up against a reality that makes it very hard for an author to offer such wishful thinking, even if it is entirely fictional. Even Chandler's tough and romantic PI Philip Marlowe back in the Los Angeles of the 1940s had little illusion in that particular respect, but the dramatic increase of everyday crime in the chaotic mega-cities of today's America calls the concept of law and order—any order—itself into question.

Exactly this seems to be the point where Hillerman comes in to close the gap between a romantic yearning for an ordered society and fresh coordinates for contemporary crime literature, because it seems that he has found such a “closed and limited world.” His series of crime novels take place on the Navajo Reservation—Dinetah—which forms an island in the midst of white American civilization, “an island of 180,000 Navajos … in a white ocean” (227).5 In this area, which centers on the cornerpoints of the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, and which in itself is defined by the cornerpoints formed by the four holy mountains of Navajo mythology, the concept of hozro is still an important factor in the life of the Dineh (“The People” or “Earth People,” as the Navajos call themselves).6 This concept can perhaps best be translated with ‘living in harmony with oneself and one's environment,’7 and it keeps a fragile balance between the Navajo Way and all the questionable blessings of the dominating industrialism and consumerism of the Euro-Americans. For Tony Hillerman, the most fascinating aspect of Navajo culture is the Navajos' ability “to bring themselves back into harmony with their universe.”8 It is the depiction of Dinetah with its rural and potentially pastoral landscape and its ruling metaphysical concept—the possibility of a life in harmony with nature and the threatening of this harmony by crime and violence—through which Hillerman builds up dramatic tension.

This is also the case in A Thief of Time, the plot of which centers on the disappearance of a young woman and on several murders connected with the looting of ancient burial sites in violation of the Antiquities Preservation Protection Act (15). A Thief of Time—like The Blessing Way (1970) and The Dark Wind (1982)—features anthropologists and their work, who are connected with a crime. Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn from the Navajo Tribal Police at Window Rock, Arizona, is on pre-retirement leave. The death of his wife Emma from brain tumor has left him stricken with grief and feeling useless and tired. But he decides to spend the remaining two weeks of his pre-retirement leave trying to find Eleanor Friedman-Bernal. This is due to the fact that Leaphorn thinks his late wife would have wanted him to do so: “Emma would have liked her” (42).

An important characteristic of both Chee and Leaphorn is their incorruptible integrity. Their deep roots in the culture of their people, with its disparaging view of material things and prosperity, makes the two Navajo policemen anachronistic figures in a world that is dominated by the idea of progress. Ambition, the prominent motive for the crimes committed in A Thief of Time, and an underlying factor of the white characters' world, is a thing unknown to these detectives—at least, that is, ambition in the white man's sense. So they are not like the many ‘broken’ characters that people contemporary crime fiction, policemen that work both sides of the law and take personal advantage of their position. Chee and Leaphorn, the reader is certain, will always do the right thing and, if not—there are a few exceptions9—their motivation will be noble and thus serve a higher law and ultimate justice. Old-fashioned integrity as well as unconventionality in method and thinking are of course well-known ingredients for the classic detective-protagonist, and Hillerman admits that his Joe Leaphorn could be called “my Sherlock Holmes.”10 Just like Chandler's hero Philip Marlowe, the two Navajo detectives resist the material temptations of contemporary society. They are not, however, modern knights-errant; they are motivated by their desire to keep a certain harmonious balance intact, a balance that includes white norms and values only insofar as they seem absolutely necessary. The scales are thus quite different, because the white world—the ‘other’ world—is the intruder bringing discord and threatening the Navajo world and its fundamental concept of hozro. The dualistic world view that is transported in most of the average crime novels here refers to different opponents than the usual, universal dichotomy of good versus bad; because the dichotomy found in Hillerman's novels is the good (of Dinetah) struggling against the bad (of the encroaching white world). Needless to say that this image conjures up immediately the well-known cliché of Rousseau's noble savage struggling against unscrupulous and neurotic Calvinists. But accusing Tony Hillerman of a shallow liberalism would not only constitute a complete misreading of his novels, but also discount his sturdy conservatism.11

A Thief of Time is in many respects a turning point in the Leaphorn/Chee series. Both protagonists reach a certain maturity in their development that signals their respective attitudes in forthcoming sequels. While Joe Leaphorn had not undergone a considerable change in the course of eight novels, the younger Chee had matured as a personality in each sequel of the series. Chee was first introduced in People of Darkness (1980). By that time Hillerman had realized that

[Leaphorn] was too old; he was too sophisticated; he'd been to FBI academy; he knew the ways of the white man, and they didn't intrigue him, particularly. So by the time I was writing the third book, Listening Woman, I was thinking this guy's not what I need. I need somebody younger, more traditional, more into his religion, more amazed by white ways. About the same time, I became aware that I had signed a very bad movie-television option, and the people who had optioned the book had kept renewing it, and they had renewed it enough to buy television rights, not movie rights, but TV rights to Leaphorn. So I didn't own TV rights to the guy anymore. So I had art and the motive of greed working together which overcame my lethargy and I created Chee, younger and more Navajo.12

Jim Chee is the nephew of one of the most famous Navajo shamans, Frank Sam Nakai, and like his uncle he studies to become “a hathathali. A singer” (64). Although firmly rooted in the Navajo Way, Chee has taken the first tentative steps towards a white middle-class career, but he is still reluctant to go all the way. Thus he is constantly trying to live up to a very fragile compromise: “[Chee] can feel as much at home on the University of New Mexico campus as at an ancient ceremonial on the reservation but is still trying to decide which culture he values more.”13 As an apprentice of the traditional healing ceremonies, some of which can last for as long as eight days and nights, Chee has to learn the words of the complicated chants or ‘ways’ by heart. He does so while driving in his patrol car and listening to recordings of specific chants on his tape recorder. So far he has more or less mastered the Blessing Way, a ceremony supposed to cure great sorrow or distress. Chee carries some calling cards advertising his art:

Singer of The Blessing Way
Available for other ceremonials
For consultation call _______
(P.O. Box 112, Shiprock, N.M.),


The phone number is left out because Chee lives on the edge of town, in an aluminum trailer on the banks of the San Juan River (75). The trailer is probably the dwelling that comes closest to a traditional Navajo hogan, and this underlines his reluctance to fully embrace white culture. Leaphorn characterizes his young colleague as follows:

An odd young man, Chee. Smart, apparently. Alert. But slightly … slightly what? Bent? Not exactly. It wasn't just the business of trying to be a medicine man—a following utterly incongruous with police work. He was a romantic, Leaphorn decided. That was it. A man who followed dreams. … Chee seemed to think an island of 180,000 Navajos could live the old way in a white ocean. Perhaps 20,000 of them could, if they were happy, on mutton, cactus, and pinon nuts. Not practical. Navajos had to compete in the real world. The Navajo Way didn't teach competition. Far from it.


But Leaphorn's dilemma resembles that of Chee in more ways than he at first realizes. While Chee struggles to maintain his ties to the Navajo Way, the older Leaphorn has lived, too, according to the rules of Western rationality to be able to return to the metaphysical concepts of his people. Hillerman had treated this predicament in The Blessing Way, his first novel featuring Leaphorn, who investigates the murder of a young Navajo named Luis Horseman, who is described as “[j]ust another poor soul who didn't quite know how to be a Navajo and couldn't learn to act like a white. No good for anything.”14

It is this predicament that Chee and, most of all, Leaphorn, have to face in A Thief of Time. In order to come to terms with their individual situation they have to come to terms with the past. Therefore time is the central metaphor in the novel, whose title is a verbatim quote from an official poster issued by the National Park Service: “A THIEF OF TIME … POT HUNTERS DESTROY AMERICA'S PAST” (18). But more importantly, as Fred Erisman states, “… time itself—personal time, professional time, and cultural time—is an essential element of the story, and how Hillerman's characters react to time's passing gives the book much of its [regional and] emotional richness.”15 The central meaning of time in the novel is experienced by the protagonists as their own past, which inevitably holds unpleasant and painful memories. Almost every character in the novel is haunted by their personal history:

* Chee still has not overcome his abortive love affair with the Anglo schoolteacher Mary Landon, and he is trying to figure out the reason for his failure in cross-cultural relationship. The young Navajo lawyer Janet Pete is facing a situation that mirrors Chee's dilemma, because she is suffering from her ambivalent feelings for a white career lawyer.

* Eleanor Friedman-Bernal has divorced her husband and former colleague, Eduardo Bernal, who apparently left her for another woman, and she is still haunted by the memory of his unfaithfulness: “Eddie Bernal. Tough little Ed. Fun while it lasted. But not much fun for long. Soon surely before Christmas, she would drop the hyphen. Ed would hardly notice. A sigh of relief, perhaps. End of that brief phase when he'd thought one woman would be enough” (11). Eleanor, the intellectual, tries to overcompensate her personal unhappiness with professional brilliance. Like Randall Elliot, she is trying to prove a scientific theory that would revolutionize anthropology and solve one of its biggest mysteries: the disappearance of the Anasazi. For that she is willing to violate laws that protect certain burial sites—she becomes a thief of time.

* Maxie Davis cannot overcome the memory of the hardships she had to suffer growing up in bitter poverty. Although she has finally mastered all those difficulties and is on her way to a promising career as an anthropologist, her personal history has hardened Maxie emotionally. As a way of revenge on all those who have had it easier than herself Maxie, who calls herself “white trash” (111), makes Randall Elliot suffer for his privileged background: “… this man from old money, Exeter Academy, where the tuition would have fed her family for two years. … Anyway, nothing Elliot can do impresses Maxie. It was all given to him” (172). This strategy of spitefulness and revenge on Maxie's side, who tries to overcompensate her former underprivileged status, indirectly leads to the crimes committed in this novel. Leaphorn has figured this out at the end of the novel, when he faces the killer, Randall Elliot: “I guess Maxie. … You want her. But she's a self-made, class-conscious woman with a lot of bad memories of being put down by the upper class. On top of that, she's a tough one, a little mean. She resents you, and everybody like you, because it's all handed to you. So I think you're going to do something that has nothing to do with being born to the upper, upper, upper class. Something that neither Maxie nor anyone else can ignore” (314). Hillerman, of course, needs to present a believable motivation for someone who kills three persons, but in Maxie Davis he also shows someone who cannot escape her past and is therefore unable to form a normal relationship with anyone who does not come “out of the cotton patch” (110). The “game she plays” (171) is not only self-defeating—most people are embarrassed by Maxie's behavior and feel rather sorry for her—it is ultimately destructive.

* Randall Elliot is presented as someone who is driven to commit crimes, because he is desperately trying to impress the woman he loves but finds that the burden of his privileged past stands between them. Most of the characterization of Elliot comes from Mr. and Mrs. Luna, who describe him as “one of those one-woman men” who had left his job in Washington just to be near Maxie Davis, and as “a macho guy” who is “downright obsessive” (170). Elliot's dilemma is clearly that he has to create himself anew in the eyes of Maxie Davis. His achievements so far are impressive—“Played football at Princeton. Flew a Navy helicopter in Vietnam. Won a Navy Cross and some other decorations. And he's made himself a good name in physical anthropology for a man his age” (171). His aim to convince Maxie of his worth, he thinks, can perhaps be reached by some outstanding achievement in the field of anthropological research. But even in that respect he is frustrated by Maxie's contempt, because Elliot's striving for excellence in his field is immediately connected by her to some aristocratic family tradition: “… Randall here … is revolutionizing physical anthropology. … Elliots do not spend time on small things. In the navy they are admirals. In universities they are presidents. In politics they are senators. When you start at the top you have to aim high. Or everybody is disappointed” (111).

The three young anthropologists as a group seem to stand as representatives of a ‘lost’ generation of college students, of which a considerable segment had once dreamed of rebelling against the establishment and creating a counterculture. Could it be that Hillerman, who in his long career as a teacher had ample opportunity to witness the changing ideological attitudes among students, wants to point out that the generation of the sixties has sold out and joined the rat race for jobs and fame, firmly embedded in the greedy me-generation of Reagan's 1980s? Nostalgic reminiscences of the sixties appear in the muted and distant sounds of pop stars Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Such a reading would certainly complement Hillerman's general strategy to contrast the malaise of contemporary Anglo-American culture with an indigenous culture that is still basically intact.

* Finally, there is Harrison Houk. He lives with a Navajo housemaid in a big ranch house which was “built to defy time” but is now “surrounded by decay” (134). Houk's parlor is like a museum, “its walls a gallery of photographs” (136). Time seems to have stopped in this house, since a tragedy wiped out Houk's family. This event is brought back by Leaphorn's visit. Leaphorn's role in this tragic affair—although twenty years have passed—has not been forgotten by Houk, and this fact creates a kind of intimacy between the two men that will prove important in the course of the novel. Houk is a controversial and ambivalent figure. In fact, compared to Maxie Davis, Randall Elliot, and the Lunas, one could call him the single white character in the novel who is more than a cardboard figure. Houk's personal history shows him as a tough, shrewd, and sometimes ruthless local politician and businessman. As a descendant of Mormon pioneers he seems to be closer to the land and also to the Native Americans than other Anglos. But most of all it is his perseverance and his ability to endure that seem to create a kind of spiritual kinship to Navajo values. Of central importance is Houk's sense of family, which is also a concept that Navajos hold sacred. Leaphorn, who is of course all the more sensitive to this fact, notices that this white man, who is allegedly involved in more than dubious dealings with antique pottery, has been living in constant mourning for the past twenty years. His detective's eye notices at once, for example, that “everything was dusty except the piano” (141), namely, the piano that Brigham Houk used to love to play on (144). There are both implicit and explicit connections between Houk's value system and that of the Navajo. Houk explains that one of little Brigham's problems had been that he was “shy as a Navajo.” Another thing is that a Navajo does not believe in capital punishment, that even a murderer is to be considered as a person who is desperately in need of help and should not be locked up in some institution. So Leaphorn can certainly relate to the fact that Houk hides his mentally disturbed son up the San Juan River and that sustaining his only surviving family member has become the old man's sole purpose in life.

For Joe Leaphorn, the feeling of a time that is unretrievably lost is most painful when he grieves for his wife Emma, who has died of brain tumor. The suffering caused by Emma's death has traumatized Leaphorn, and only through a continuous effort can he fight off a feeling of apathy and emptiness: “What will I do tonight, when I am back in Window Rock? What will I do tomorrow? What will I do when this winter has come? And when it has gone? What will I ever do again?” (15) All he has got left are memories of Emma and things that they used to do together, like their visit to New York City and its Museum of Modern Art. As Leaphorn returns to New York to gather information concerning Eleanor's connections to antique dealers and collectors, this journey becomes a trip into his own past in more than one sense. At first, it seems ironical that a Native American, who is supposed to live in harmony with his native surroundings, should draw new strength from a visit to Manhattan. But Hillerman is once again playing with the ambivalence that a Native American is bound to face in contemporary America. Sometimes, Hillerman seems to imply, it takes a flight from Albuquerque to New York for a Navajo to rediscover and reclaim his roots and his cultural heritage. His use of fertility symbols—life-giving rain and the goat—together with the motif of the journey is a convincing means of making the reader aware of the slow and painful healing process that Joe Leaphorn has to undergo throughout the novel. Of course, these symbols can only work with somebody who can relate to them, and so the meaning of rain is certainly not lost on Leaphorn as he sits inside the Museum of Modern Art:

Like all dry-country people, Leaphorn enjoyed rain—that rare, longed-for, refreshing blessing that made the desert bloom and life possible. He sat with his head full of thoughts and watched the water run down the bricks, drip from the leaves, form its cold pools on the flagstones, and give a slick shine to Picasso's goat.


For Emma, Picasso's sculpture of a goat in the patio of the museum had represented the toughness and perseverance of the Navajo Nation: “‘Look. The mascot of the Navajo Nation.’ … ‘Perfect for us Dineh,’ she'd said. ‘It's starved, gaunt, bony, ugly. But look! It's tough. It endures’” (193). In a déjà vu-like flashback, Leaphorn is reminded of how he and Emma had patted Picasso's goat, and he now hurries out into the rain to renew this gesture: “He got up and hurried out of the museum into the rain, leaving the umbrella hanging forgotten on the chair” (193). “And of course, it was true. That gaunt goat would have been the perfect symbol. … Miserable and starved, true enough. But it was also pregnant and defiant …” (193). The importance of the goat as a symbol for defiant endurance is taken up by Hillerman in one of his essays, where a contemporary Navajo relates to Hillerman the moving scene from the time of the Navajos' captivity at Bosque Redondo. According to which, in 1864, Chief Barboncita asked General Sherman to let the Navajos return to their homeland: “‘If we are taken back to our own country,’ Barboncita told Sherman, ‘we will call you our father and mother. If there was only a single goat there, we would all live off of it.’”16

In what one may call an epiphany scene, Hillerman, by convincingly employing symbols of fertility and life-giving forces, depicts the rebirth of Joe Leaphorn. At the moment that Leaphorn touches the fertility symbol of the goat, which furthermore symbolizes the most important characteristic of his people, i.e., the ability ‘to endure,’ he reestablishes his ties to the Navajo tradition and thus returns to his roots. That the Navajo Joe Leaphorn has to cross the American continent, to one of the temples of white culture in the artificial glass-and-concrete-canyons of New York City, to regain the awareness of his people's cultural ancestry and thereby renew the contact with the central symbolical power source for survival, seems to be an ironic comment by Hillerman. Leaphorn, the intellectual, who on his flight browses through the New Yorker, who holds two academic titles and who has given up his “intentions of becoming Dr. Leaphorn” (107) only because of his marriage to Emma, is resurrected to his own ‘primitive culture’ in the Mekka of the intellectuals. Hillerman clearly employs here his own deeply felt and, in much of his work, often used, town-country dichotomy. His use of symbols, especially of rain as a life-giving element, is almost too obvious. Leaphorn, the man from the arid desert country, who suffers from a kind of burn-out himself, acquires and later rejects the artificial shelter from life-giving rain:

Leaphorn had bought [an umbrella], the first he'd ever owned, and continued his journey under it—tremendously self-conscious—thinking he would own the only umbrella in Window Rock, and perhaps the only umbrella on the reservation, if not in all of Arizona.


The umbrella, here clearly symbolizing his temporary withdrawal from life, is significantly left behind at the moment of Leaphorn's epiphany, the realization of the symbolic meaning of Picasso's goat: “He got up and hurried out of the museum into the rain, leaving the umbrella hanging forgotten on the chair” (193).

After this incident at the Museum of Modern Art, Leaphorn seems to have found a new sensibility, which becomes apparent during his visit to the art collector Richard DuMont. He is appalled by this pale old man with the “small voice,” who has as a servant another “old man, stooped and gray in a wrinkled gray suit” (194). DuMont in his wheelchair is surrounded by an aura of decay and decadence; his morbid lust for the sensational and often bloody background of his artifacts appears perverse:

One doesn't merely buy the object. … One wants what goes with it. The history. This head, for example, came out of the jungles in northern Guatemala. It had decorated the doorway to a chamber in a temple. The room where captives were held until they were sacrificed. I'm told the Olmec priests strangled them with a cord.


The disappearance of Eleanor interests DuMont only insofar as he senses some mysterious and spectacular incident that would add some sensational aura to the Anasazi pot he has bought. His motivation for buying Anasazi art in the first place had been for similar reasons, as he explains to Leaphorn: “This is about when my pot was made. … Right at the end. The twilight. In the dying days” (197). DuMont is, thus, indirectly a thief of time. Almost lifeless himself, he seems to intoxicate himself on the artifacts of history's doomed and vanished peoples like the Anasazi. The depiction of DuMont as an almost ghoulish figure makes the contrast to a now revitalized Leaphorn, who has just reached a new awareness of his own ancient and living culture, even greater. To the Navajo, this home of a white man, which is something between a tomb and a museum, is nauseating: “He pushed himself out of the chair. He wanted to get out of this room. Away. Out into the clean rain” (202). Again the cleansing and purifying quality of the rain is stressed, helping to reinforce the symbolic resurrection of Joe Leaphorn, as he leaves the decadent and lifeless white civilization behind to go back to his homeland and nature.

Consequently, Leaphorn's next step towards a new beginning follows on his flight back to Arizona. The western journey as a means of regeneration is a well-known and much-used motif in American literature, and Hillerman self-consciously employs this strategy. Although it may be argued that Hillerman did not spend much thought on subtlety in describing Leaphorn's transcontinental journey, he had to keep an eye on the plot—after all, this is a mystery novel. On the other hand, what may appear as a handy cliché, is perfectly believable in the context of Leaphorn's personality. His allegorical journey or quest takes on autotherapeutic elements. This healing process is aided considerably by Leaphorn's return to his homeland:

Ahead, the earth rose like a rocky island out of the ocean of humid air that blanketed the midlands. Leaphorn could see the broken mesas of eastern New Mexico. Beyond, on the Western horizon, great cloud-castle thunderheads, unusual in autumn, rose into the stratosphere. Leaphorn felt something he hadn't felt since Emma's death. He felt a kind of joy.


Leaphorn's healing process is on its way to completion in the novel's final chapters. Again Hillerman does not hesitate to use another obvious symbol. The river journey in literature, from the Odyssey to Mark Twain, from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau to Edward Abbey, stands for some basic change of awareness, for a transcendental process, for a fundamental development towards maturity and spiritual healing. In the case of Leaphorn, the trip up the San Juan is something that he had always intended to undertake together with his wife—“Always intended to do it but there was never enough time. And now, of course, the time was all used up” (131). “Emma would have enjoyed this trip. He had always planned to take her, but there was never time, until now, when time no longer mattered” (290).

At the beginning of his trip, Leaphorn becomes aware of his loneliness and isolation. Unlike his younger colleague Chee, the agnostic Leaphorn so far cannot find solace in the age-old healing ceremonies of his people. Caught in his own rationality, Leaphorn is isolated from this essential element of Navajo culture. This Hillerman expresses with images from nature:

Egrets, [Leaphorn thought], were like snow geese and wolves and those other creatures—like Leaphorn himself—that mated only once and for life. … It was living out its loneliness in this empty place. Leaphorn's kayak slid out of the darkness under the cliff and into a moonlit eddy. His shadow streaked out from that of the kayak, making a strange, elongated shape. It reminded him of the bird, and he waved the paddle to magnify the effect.


Leaphorn's clinging to this case (his last, the reader is made to believe) of the missing woman develops throughout the course of the novel. At the beginning, it is something to distract his mind from the constant thought about Emma's death, but later it becomes a compensatory act. Leaphorn, who stood helpless at the slow and agonizing death of his wife, at least wants to try to save another woman. His thoughts about Eleanor become more and more intimate, as can be observed by Leaphorn's use of the anthropologist's name. It changes from the bored and even slightly hostile “Dr. What's-Her-Name['s]” (29) and “that hyphenated woman” (62), to a cool and business-like “Friedman” und “Friedman-Bernal” (98, 101), to the more personal “Eleanor” and, finally, to “Ellie” (298). Parallel to that is Leaphorn's changing rationalization of what the search for Eleanor ultimately means. At first, it is “the need for a reason to get away from their house in Window Rock and all its memories. … he would play this pointless game. He would find a woman” (63). Parallel to this reasoning, a kind of awareness creeps up on Leaphorn that a diffuse kind of soul kinship exists between Emma and Eleanor—and even their names sound almost alike. “Leaphorn couldn't explain it, but his mind made a sort of nebulous connection between Emma's character and that of a woman who was probably quite different” (62). It is, of all things, the German dish sauerbraten (40f.), which for Leaphorn serves as a connection between the two women. Leaphorn's decision to try to find Eleanor is not just “a way [to] say good-bye to Emma” (62); it almost appears as an attempt on Leaphorn's side to appease Emma's ghost. At the beginning of chapter four, when Leaphorn attends the service of Slick Nakai, he thinks about the search for Eleanor as a “pointless game” (63). But Leaphorn obviously changes his mind, because at the end of the chapter his thoughts are the following:

He felt an urgency now. The disappearance of Dr. Eleanor Friedman-Bernal had been merely something curious—an oddity. Now he sensed something dangerous. He had never been sure he could find the woman. Now he wondered if she'd be alive if he did.


Although the instincts of the veteran detective seem to dominate Leaphorn's motivation, and although it is later stressed that he “didn't believe in chindi, or in anything else” (150), one should keep in mind that Leaphorn is clearly influenced by the spiritual atmosphere of the revival (!) tent and by the presence of two believers of a very different kind—the Reverend Slick Nakai and Sergeant Jim Chee.

At the beginning of his river journey up the San Juan, Leaphorn seems to undergo a veritable metamorphosis. In the shadow play of the moonlight upon the canyon wall his silhouette changes to “the stick figure of the yei Black God as Navajo shamans represented him in the dry painting of the Night Chant” (286). Then he becomes “Kokopelli, with his hunched back full of sorrows” (287). This mirrors the metamorphosis that Eleanor has undergone at the beginning of the novel: “[Eleanor] became Kokopelli himself. The backpack formed the spirit's grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli himself. The backpack formed the spirit's grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli's crooked flute” (1). Leaphorn's association with the Anasazi fertility god represents his transformation from the detached, burned-out cop to the active role of life-saver. Eleanor's becomes the belated gift that Leaphorn had vowed to the memory of Emma: “Well, tomorrow he would find that woman. A sort of gift, it would be” (290). With Leaphorn's mission completed he thinks of “… how proud Emma would be of him tonight if she could be home to hear about this woman brought safely to the hospital” (323).

Joe Leaphorn has thus paid his dues to his wife and her traditional background. Moreover, he is taking responsibility for another person who is now, since Harrison Houk's death, also without a family. Leaphorn's decision to take care of the mentally disturbed Brigham Houk is more than the acknowledgment of Brigham's decisive action in Many Ruins Canyon. Leaphorn's decision honors the devotion and endurance of old Harrison Houk, whose morals, despite his otherwise dubious character, appear superior to that of almost every other white character in A Thief of Time. Tony Hillerman repeatedly, and intentionally, in his novels mentions the one devastating insult possible among a people in whose language swear words do not exist, namely the accusation that one acts as if one had no relatives. In A Thief of Time, Leaphorn finds new relatives through his Wahlverwandtschaft with Eleanor and Brigham, and thereby he finds a way towards hozro and a newly found inner harmony. The decision to acknowledge once again responsibility and to solve his own as well as Brigham Houk's problems leads Leaphorn to

… postpone his plan to leave the reservation, probably a long postponement. Solving the problem about what to do about Brigham Houk would take more than one trip down the river. And if he had to stick around, he might as well withdraw that letter. As Captain Nez had said, he could always write it again.


A Thief of Time is the description of a healing process, much like Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony, at the end of which stands the promise of health and sanity. What differs, though, from Silko's outstanding book, is Hillerman's restraint from describing the ritual of the Blessing Way. The way the novel ends is nevertheless sufficiently convincing, and it fits the subdued and skeptical outlook of Leaphorn. The Navajo Way by no means comes out as a triumphant remedy. Joe Leaphorn remains the cool, detached analytic whose sense for order makes him reject irrational and supernatural phenomena. Accordingly, his request for the Blessing Way, which he asks his young colleague to perform for him, remains skeptical and is uttered almost against better knowledge. But his tentative thought—“Why not?” (324)—contains as much hope as world-weary defeatism. After all, the ancient healing ceremony represents an intricate system of order, only of a different quality. When Leaphorn decides that he might as well give the Blessing Way a try, it is not so much the gesture of a modern agnostic wearing (just in case) a blessed amulet. It is rather a deliberate choice by which Leaphorn embraces his native culture and its constant striving for harmony and order. The mature Leaphorn seems to be able to transcend the superstitious aspects of the Navajo Way that alienated Leaphorn as a young man. The decisive aspect of Leaphorn's choice, and also of Tony Hillerman's credo, is the necessity to believe in something.17 In Coyote Waits (1990)18 Leaphorn reflects on the ceremony he had requested at the end of A Thief of Time, thereby expressing his ambivalent feelings: “… he'd hired Chee to do a Blessing Way for him … partly to give the young man a chance to try his hand as a shaman and partly as a gesture toward Emma's people” (22). But once the ceremony had gotten under way, Leaphorn “had wished desperately to call it all off. He was a hypocrite. He did not believe …” (23). Thus, A Thief of Time clearly shows elements of an Entwicklungsroman, but also presents different strategies in intercultural socialization. Joe Leaphorn reaches a maturity which, added to his personal integrity, seems to be Hillerman's recipe for Native American consciousness. Joe Leaphorn will continue to struggle with tradition and with his own almost fanatical desire to find order and harmony, but the most important statement of the novel is that he will endure.19


  1. Tony Hillerman, “Mystery, Country Boys, and the Big Reservation,” Colloquium on Crime: Eleven Renowned Mystery Writers Discuss Their Work, ed. Robin W. Winks (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1986) 127-47; 137.

  2. Hillerman has won several rewards from the MWA (Mystery Writers of America) among them the Edgar Allan Poe Award for The Dance Hall of the Dead as Best Mystery Novel of 1973. For an exhaustive discussion of Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series see Peter Freese, The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes—Harry Kemelman—Tony Hillerman, Arbeiten zur Amerikanistik 10 (Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 1992) 168-245.

  3. Other authors have reacted by introducing lesbian private eyes, gay cops, singing detectives feline sleuths—the combinations are as bizarre as they seem endless. Examples for this new diversity of crime fiction range from Carl Hiaasen's environmental thrillers to Daniel Evan Weiss's novel La Cucaracha, in which the narrator and protagonist is a cockroach (!).

  4. Peter Rickman, “Quixote Rides Again: The Popularity of the Thriller,” The Hero in Transition, ed. Ray B. Browne and Marshall W. Fishwick (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983) 131-40; 135.

  5. Tony Hillerman, A Thief of Time (1988; New York: Harper, 1990). All further quotations given in parentheses in the text refer to this edition.

  6. Funnily enough, the word ‘Navajo’ does not exist in the ‘Navajo’ language. It came to us through the Spaniards, namely through Fray Alonso de Benavides, who in 1630 heard the Tewa-Pueblo of New Mexico speak of a neighboring tribe they described as “Apaches de Nabahu,” meaning ‘Strangers of the Cultivated Fields.’ In Spanish, this was shortened to ‘Nabajo’ and in English to ‘Navajo,’ or frequently ‘Navaho.’ See Ruth Underhill, The Navajos (Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1989) 4, 36.

  7. In Hillerman's novel The Ghostway (New York: Harper, 1984) 136, hozro is described as a “sort of blend of being in harmony with one's environment, at peace with one's circumstances, content with the day, devoid of danger, and free from anxieties.”

  8. See Hillerman, “Mystery” 128.

  9. For example, in Hillerman's The Dark Wind (1982), where the reader observes none other than officer Jim Chee in a clear case of aiding and abetting: Chee provides an old Pueblo shaman with the necessary hardware and expertise to destroy an electric windmill that runs a well sitting on an ancient and holy burial site. As a compensation, Chee obtains crucial information which enables him to solve a murder case, but it becomes obvious that his bad conscience is clearly limited by his personal feelings about technology desecrating holy ground.

  10. Fred Erisman, Tony Hillerman, Boise State University Western Writers Series 87 (Boise, ID: Boise State UP, 1989) 128.

  11. The Luna family in A Thief of Time, strongly reminiscent of The Waltons, illustrate Hillerman's fundamentalist attitudes. Father Luna knows best, mother adds homely wisdom, and the well-behaved kids are immediately sent to their room when the grown-ups start talking about an unmarried couple (167).

  12. See Dale H. Ross and Charles L. P. Silet, “Interview with Tony Hillerman,” Clues: A Journal of Detection 10.2 (Fall/Winter 1989): 119-35; 120ff.

  13. Betty Parker and Riley Parker, “Hillerman Country,” Armchair Detective 20.1 (Winter 1987): 4-14; 5.

  14. Tony Hillerman, The Blessing Way (1970; New York: Harper, 1990) 70.

  15. See Erisman 41.

  16. See Tony Hillerman, “The Very Heart of Our Country,” in his collection The Great Taos Bank Robbery and Other Indian Country Affairs (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1973) 14-23; 15.

  17. Hillerman states: “I like people who believe in things. … I've always been interested in cultures that are based on metaphysical positions.” See Betty and Riley Parker 10.

  18. Tony Hillerman, Coyote Waits (London: Sphere Books, 1991).

  19. In Coyote Waits, Joe Leaphorn makes the acquaintance of (or dare one say, finds a new partner in?) the anthropologist Prof. Louisa Bourebonette, with whom he plans (and, we are invited to believe, will undertake) a trip to China.

David Haward Bain (review date 22 October 1995)

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SOURCE: Bain, David Haward. “Drums along the Mekong.” New York Times Book Review (22 October 1995): 12.

[In the following review, Bain praises Hillerman for using well-developed characters and exercising narrative control in Finding Moon.]

Tony Hillerman, Western writer of fiction and nonfiction, author of the best-selling Navajo mysteries featuring the tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, strikes out into dramatically new terrain with Finding Moon. It is Southeast Asia, circa 1975, and, as the client governments in Saigon and Phnom Penh fall before the Communist onslaught, a place of great peril and deep mystery.

The hero is Malcolm (Moon) Mathias (the nickname comes from his childhood affection for Moon Pies). He is a barrel-chested former Army sergeant, now deeply rutted in a job at a Colorado newspaper, editing wire-service dispatches, smoothing out press releases and passing along boring local news. His girlfriend is 20 years younger and emotionally undependable; he has no friends, only colleagues; and his closest family connection is his distant, demanding mother in Miami Beach. Moon's brother, Ricky, a rakish civilian helicopter pilot and entrepreneur with business addresses in hangars and warehouses all over Southeast Asia, died during a flight in the Cambodian mountains, his death as much of a mystery to Moon as his recent life.

In Mr. Hillerman's hands, solutions for the mysteries, as well as for Moon's stalled life, beckon unexpectedly from afar. His elderly mother is stricken as she is about to depart from Los Angeles for Manila—Moon did not even know she had left Florida—and he flies to her side only to be handed responsibility for her emergency mission: to go to the Philippines and collect an infant girl, the daughter of Ricky and his vanished Cambodian wife. Thus Moon embarks on an odyssey that he thinks is a complete departure from his passive, emotionally numbed and unremarkable nature. His greatest surprise in the ensuing adventure may be how wrong he is about himself. Suspicious clues and questionable tips lead him from the squalid warrens of Manila to one of President Ferdinand Marcos's famous prison compounds, and then across the South China Sea to the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, and then all the way into the heart of Pol Pot's Cambodia. Along the way, as complications mount, Moon's insights into the meaning of comradeship and the depths of true heroism provide him with tests even greater than mere physical danger.

In less than competent hands, political novels all too often are not yarns but bullhorns for the writer's views. As a subject and setting, Vietnam has had perhaps more than its share in this trend, frequently with the familiar template of war events, characters of singularly flat aspect and the trademark talk, talk, talk of fictional heroes who have all the answers and most certainly know whom to blame. Not once in this fast-moving novel does Mr. Hillerman lose control of his narrative or his grip on its characters—all of whom have depth and even a little mystery. If he dedicates this work to his comrades in World War II—“to the men of C Company and to all those who earned the right to wear the Combat Infantry Badge”—he does not write only to them.

The action in Finding Moon is unrelenting—especially since the author has effectively placed it within the dramatic context of the 1975 calamity in Southeast Asia, with North Vietnamese columns steamrolling across uncontested ground, with United States helicopters dipping over frantic, teeming throngs to extract embassy personnel in Saigon, with troops of the client regimes rioting and looting, with the fanatical Khmer Rouge marching civilians out of the cities and towns and beginning their wholesale murder. Because Mr. Hillerman has made Moon Mathias a journalist and former Vietnam grunt, these interjected news bulletins play a realistic and believable part in the narrative, and they are supported by the author's finely tuned research. Military events in the spring of 1975 along the lower Mekong and up in the grim Cambodian highlands, unfolding as Moon and a slapdash team of comrades journey toward their uncertain goal, have the ring of verisimilitude about them. Mr. Hillerman, known for densely plotted mysteries, compelling characterization and realistic settings in his Navajo novels, creates in Finding Moon a rollicking, wildly improbable yet wholly believable dash across war-torn Vietnam in a commandeered armored personnel carrier. Within those cramped, oily confines, with the sounds of combat filtering in through the open hatch, Moon and a strange melange of adventurers close in on their various goals, their odyssey entering into legend.

Dick Roraback (review date 19 November 1995)

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SOURCE: Roraback, Dick. “Journey into a Heart of Darkness.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (19 November 1995): 3, 8.

[In the following review, Roraback hails Finding Moon as an entertaining story rich in detail and praises the work for its depth and the complexity of its main character.]

Tony Hillerman? In Vietnam? Say it ain't so. The sandpaper sage of the Southwest, the author whose proudest trophy, among more than a few, is the Navajo Tribe's Special Friend Award? Tony Hillerman bopping about the Cambodian border in a vintage armored personnel carrier a click ahead of the Cong and a 10-foot Pol from Pot?

Hey, a man has to take a breather. Mystery writer Hillerman, typically, inspires with both lungs. Besides, he reminds us, he's an ex-grunt himself, combat infantryman, and he has a pretty good handle on that terrain too. So leave Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn in charge of the Tribal Police (back next book) and follow Moon Mathias half a world away [in Finding Moon].

When he's down on himself—too often—Moon, a strapping, can-do sort of man, sees himself as “a third-rate managing editor on a third-rate newspaper, sleeping with Miss Southern Rockies when she decided it was a good idea. …” He's a hero to his kid brother Ricky, an oaf to his editor, a good guy to just about everybody else but a failure to his mother, steel-willed and independent, who dotes on Ricky but otherwise “isn't a woman who needs people.”

She needs Moon now, though she doesn't know it. Doesn't know much of anything. She's sedated after a heart attack at LAX, en route from her Miami home to Manila. They call Moon at his Colorado paper. She was on her way to pick up Ricky's daughter, it turns out. Moon didn't know that Ricky had a daughter. Mom is not a confider.

Ricky, we know, has stayed on in Southeast Asia after his discharge, setting up a helicopter business. Chopper repair for the Vietnamese army, Courier service. “‘Delivering things out of places where the Communists are coming in,’ explains a client. ‘Delivering property to Hong Kong and Singapore and Manila. … People who own valuable things will pay well for such deliveries.’” It's not just an adventure, its a job. Legit. Probably.

Only Ricky has crashed and burned somewhere on the border. Died with his wife, Eleth Vinh. And his baby daughter Lila is … somewhere. And somebody is looking, very hard, for the cargo Ricky was carrying.

Hillerman does it well, setting us up as he sets up Moon, laying down the spoor, loping just ahead. Moon, nonplussed, gets some of the picture from a packet of papers sent to his mother by a Manila lawyer. The rest he learns from one Lum Lee, a wizened old Chinese gentleman who sifts like smoke into Moon's airport hotel room. Ricky was flying the bones of an ancestor out of Cambodia, says Lee. The bones must be found and “placed where the fung shui is correct. Where the spirit is again comfortable.” Bones, he insists. Not heroin. Sure.

Whatever, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Something like that. Moon to Manila. Baby Lila never arrived, says the lawyer. Probably still in Saigon which is fast coming unstuck (it's April, 1975). Maybe Cambodia. Moon tries to trace Ricky's friends, an elusive lot. One, George Rice, is in prison on a remote Philippines island. No problem, everybody says. Get him out of there and he'll take you to Lila. Never mind that Southeast Asia in '75 is a seething scrum of deserters, refugees, turncoats, fierce little men in black pajamas, cutthroat Chimeras. Hey, he's Ricky's bro, isn't he?

And here is where we really begin to like Moon. Everyone assumes he's fearless. He's not. What he really wants to do is find the baby, most preferably in Manila, and get the hell home. Maybe even—heresy!—not find her and get the hell home. Do his best, of course, but if she's missing, she's missing. Who is he, Mr. Keen, tracer of lost persons?

And here is the departure that distinguishes Hillerman's book from semi-mindless adventure. Remember the title. It's not “Finding Lila,” it's Finding Moon. It's discovering, belatedly and poignantly, what Moon is really made of.

Central to the quest is a marvelous dialogue, in a penitent's box of all places. Moon, knocking about night-time Manila, exotic and menacing, shelters from the rain in an old cathedral. He chances upon a percipient if underemployed young priest, happy to chat with a rare foreigner. In the natural course of their conversation, Moon's confession bursts like a battlefield flare: “I killed a man. He was my best friend.” Nor is that his worst offense. That is what he did to his mother.

In due course, Moon is steering that APC through a Far East Gehenna, along with the ineffable Lum Lee, a splendid Vietnamese sailor with “Kill Communists” tattooed on his chest, and a manne-quin-cool Dutch-woman whose missionary brother has decided to die among the Montagnards, thus achieving instant sainthood.

If the scenario is occasionally far-fetched, so was the war. In any case, the rousing Hillerman tale carries enough detail and insight to override any improbabilities. Hardly the Navajo Trail but well worth the detour.

Penny Stevens (review date April 1997)

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SOURCE: Stevens, Penny. Review of The Fallen Man, by Tony Hillerman. School Library Journal 43, no. 4 (April 1997): 166.

[In the following review, Stevens argues that The Fallen Man includes vivid descriptions of Native American mythology and tradition, but the plot is less suspenseful and not as tightly woven as previous novels in the series.]

The latest Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn mystery [The Fallen Man] has vivid descriptions of Native American mythology and traditions but lacks the suspense and tightly woven plot of the earlier titles in this popular series. A skeleton is found on a high ledge of Ship Rock mountain, a place sacred to the Navahos. Tribal Police Lieutenant Chee and the now retired Leaphorn suspect correctly that it belongs to a wealthy rancher missing for 11 years, and Chee tries to discover if it is murder or an accidental death. Meanwhile, Leaphorn is hired by a lawyer to look into the investigation for the rancher's Eastern family, who want to own his land legally so they can accept a lucrative bid for the mining rights. The obvious suspects, if there was foul play, are the young woman who inherited the ranch and her brother who manages it. In addition to uncovering the cause of death, Chee must determine if the rancher died before or after his 30th birthday when he legally inherited the ranch from a family trust. The continuing rocky romance between Chee and tribal lawyer Janet Pete brings an interesting love angle to the story. Environmentalism and the survival of Native American culture are strong themes.

Brewster E. Fitz (essay date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Fitz, Brewster E. “Ethnocentric Guilt in Tony Hillerman's Dance Hall of the Dead.MELUS 22, no. 2 (summer 1997): 92-103.

[In the following essay, Fitz examines the anthropological and ethnocentric themes in Dance Hall of the Dead.]

Tony Hillerman's ethnographic detective novels have been widely acclaimed. He has acquired a loyal following of readers among both Native and Anglo-Americans as well as international readers. This success has been attributed in part to the Navajo detectives Hillerman has created, who, according to Ernie Bulow, open up “a world of interesting characters, beautiful landscapes, and a people who see things in different terms than Anglo-American culture,” and in part to Hillerman's having a “hell of a knack as a storyteller” (Hillerman and Bulow 14).

Hillerman is not the first or only writer to introduce detectives from non-Anglo or non-European cultures into mystery novels.1 His Navajo policemen, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, are, however, probably the only non-Anglo or non-European detectives to date whose educations include academic degrees in anthropology.2 Hillerman has explained that this formal study of anthropology, in which his detectives engaged before joining the Navajo Tribal Police, provides them with a credible knowledge of the technicalities of Native American culture and religion about which the average Navajo would not be able to talk. One of Hillerman's goals in including this detailed cultural information in a popular literary form is to instruct his readers, amusing them while helping them understand that the Native American peoples of the Southwest, far from being “primitive savages,” have a sophisticated and admirable cultural heritage.3 In other words, in his novels Hillerman seeks to fight the ethnocentrism and ignorance that have dominated in the majority view of Native American cultures.

The anthropological aspect of the detectives' backgrounds, while furnishing the narrator with verisimilar access to complex and recondite Navajo, Hopi and Zuni lore, nevertheless implicitly introduces into the text one of the theoretical problems which has recently troubled philosophers, anthropologists, and cultural critics: the problem of a possibly ineradicable ethnocentrism, aesthetically, ethically and epistemically inscribed in Occidental civilization or, to borrow a metaphor from postmodernism, inscribed in the grand narratives of the West. It is not easy, maybe not even possible, to conceive of a non-ethnocentric narrative. Even opposing ethnocentric and non-ethnocentric is problematic. Richard Rorty4 has noted that the post-Enlightenment critique of and attempt to avoid ethnocentric judgments and actions are unique to Western culture. Rorty maintains that anti-ethnocentrism is a cultural bias, grounded in the Western cultural superstructure. Thus the anti-ethnocentrist is theoretically entangled from the beginning in a paradox that undermines a universal theory of anti-ethnocentrism: by espousing anti-ethnocentricism, one is fundamentally ethnocentric (Rorty 1986).5

Thirty years earlier, Claude Lévi-Strauss sketched the contradiction underlying Rorty's position in a semi-theoretical meditation on the ethnographer's profession which isolates and emphasizes the role of cultural guilt, a concept that not only recurs in Western theoretical discussions of ethnocentrism, but is also inseparable from the detective story narrative. In Tristes tropiques, which was marketed as “les confessions d'un ethnologue,” Lévi-Strauss sees the ethnographer balanced between a naive anti-ethnocentrism that is philosophically grounded in occidental values (and therefore implicitly ethnocentric) and an amoral cultural relativism, which implies the abandonment of all values.

On the one hand, naively anti-ethnocentric moral judgments in favor of exotic cultures are implicitly grounded in the moral code of Western culture; that is to say, when Westerners let themselves be seduced by the “superior” customs of exotic peoples, they are judging those cultures by European cultural standards, to which their judgment implicitly bestows superiority. On the other hand, from a relativist stance, no moral judgments at all can be made: infanticide in China, anthropophagy in Brazil, auto-da-fé in Lisbon, and widow burning in Calcutta are equally understandable and philosophically justifiable from the point of view of the cultural relativist.

Uncomfortable with this dilemma, Lévi-Strauss proposes a “middle way” which might allow ethnographers to maintain scientific rigor and objectivity and yet to make non-ethnocentric moral judgments about their own and other cultures. This middle way relies upon reason—moderate judgments about the imperfections of Western and other cultures—to ground ethnography not in the West's “superior” ethical code, but rather in the guilt that emerges when the post-Enlightenment social scientist reflects upon the encounter of Western and other cultures. In other words, this middle way is characterized by the ethnographer's assuming a penitent vision. The ethnographer who follows the middle way is a socially responsible, intellectual, penitent inquisitor whose profession is a cultural nostra culpa seeking redemption for a genocidal original sin. In Lévi-Strauss's words: “Il est le symbole de l'expiation [It is the symbol of expiation]” (Tristes tropiques 450). Ethnographic narrative, as thus envisaged by Lévi-Strauss, is guilt-driven and grounded in ethnocentrism, for which the ethnographer's profession is a penance.

The detective story is also guilt-driven. As constructed from Edgar Allan Poe to Dorothy Sayers, it is ethically, epistemically and aesthetically Anglo or Eurocentric. It is a predominantly linear and telic narrative. By following a “clew,”6 a string of causally related signifiers, the detective reveals to the reader the penultimate signified, “who done it,” i.e., who is guilty of breaking the Divine Injunction against murder and/or other Commandments upon which Judaeo-Christian culture is founded. By implication, the detective story originally and finally refers the reader to the ultimate signified, the Truth, the system of beliefs according to which guilt and expiation are defined. Thus, the detective story is a secular allegory of the Judaeo-Christian moral history of humankind. Indeed, W. H. Auden, a self-confessed “addict” of the detective story, explained his attraction to this genre in terms of a pastoral fantasy of escaping the guilt inscribed in Judaeo-Christian narrative.7 The confession of the detective story addict's pastoral fantasy, which is indulged by reading, repeats in a “frivolous” discourse Lévi-Strauss's “serious” confession of the ethnographer's expiatory fantasy, which is indulged by fieldwork and writing.

Thus, detective story narrative and ethnographic narrative are both guilt-driven, both expiatory, both grounded in ethnocentrism, and both variations on the pastoral.8 They are two kinds of narrative which, like the propagation of anti-ethnocentrism as a post-Enlightenment cultural value, are unique to Western Civilization.9 Hillerman's Dance Hall of the Dead, in which not only is the Navajo detective trained in anthropology, but the villain is an anthropologist and author of one of the textbooks read by the detective, is the perfect text to explore what happens when these two kinds of guilt-driven and ethnocentrically grounded narratives are joined in one. It is my contention that the aesthetic, ethical and epistemic cultural biases inscribed in detective story narrative and in ethnographic narrative will emerge in Hillerman's text as one or more cross-cultural, textual metaphors, paradoxes or contradictions which potentially subvert these narratives, casting theoretical uncertainty onto the status of the Navajo detective as well as resulting in the fragmentation of the narrative or the failure to bring it to an end.

In Dance Hall of the Dead, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is assigned to find George Bowlegs, a Navajo adolescent, who is a suspect in the disappearance (the murder) of Bowlegs's Zuni friend, Ernesto Cata. A machete wielding kachina has killed Cata near the end of a training run where Bowlegs was supposed to meet him. Cata had been getting in shape for his physically demanding impersonation of Shulawitsi, the Little Fire god, at the upcoming Shalako festival. The kachina which kills Cata, Salamobia, has as one of its tasks the punishment of Zunis who forget the dance steps or break taboos. Cata is suffering from a guilty conscience, owing both to his having broken Zuni taboos and to his having committed a minor theft.

Leaphorn's search for Bowlegs takes him to various sites, including an archeological dig and a dry lake bed that some Zunis consider to be Kothluwalawa, the Dance Hall of the Dead, the after-world where, according to Zuni belief, the deceased pass their time dancing. Both of these sites function as cross-cultural textual metaphors in which detective narrative is interwoven with ethnographic narrative. From Leaphorn's reading of both of these metaphorical texts emerges the “solution” to the mystery.

The “author” of the archeological dig, Professor Chester Reynolds, is a superstar of anthropology. He is trying to prove his “modification theory” of pre-historic Folsom Man. According to Reynolds's assistant, Isaacs, if proved, this theory “would solve one of the great mysteries of American anthropology” (29). Owing to his coursework in anthropology, Leaphorn is familiar with the Folsom Man mystery. Leaphorn knows that Folsom Man's trademark is the type of beautiful fluted lance points he made and is skeptical about Reynolds's solution:

“In brief, Folsom Man didn't die out. He adapted. He began making a different kind of lancepoint—some of those that we've been crediting to entirely different cultures. And by God, we're going to prove it right here.” Isaacs' voice was exultant.

It seemed to Leaphorn a hard case to prove.

(31; emphasis added)

Reynolds's solution, as stated by Issacs, attributes to Folsom Man a willingness to change that emphasizes cost efficiency as a cultural value to the detriment of aesthetics:

Reynolds figured—and he's right—that if Folsom Man was willing to change his lance point, he'd be willing to adapt in every other way. Under the old way, they'd be sitting in camp all day turning out maybe five or six of those fluted points, and maybe breaking ten or twelve to make a kill. They couldn't afford that anymore.

(34; emphasis added)

Leaphorn's reaction to this reasoning implicitly likens the beauty and natural harmony of his own Navajo upbringing to Folsom Man's aesthetics and sarcastically associates Folsom Man's hypothetical adaptation and survival, his abandonment of beauty for cost efficiency, to an ugly memory of an ethnocentric inscription advocating cultural assimilation:

“Couldn't afford the beauty,” Leaphorn laughed, “I went to a Bureau of Indian Affairs high school that had a sign in the hall. It said, ‘Tradition Is the Enemy of Progress.’ The word was give up the old ways or die.”

(34; emphasis added)

Isaacs's response is a “quizzical look.” He does not appear to understand that Leaphorn is likening the ethnocentric sign in the hall of his BIA school to the guiding ethnocentric assumption of Reynolds's theory, which imposes an Anglo economic, aesthetic and ethical perspective on pre-historic Native American behavior.10 Furthermore, Reynolds does this not in an effort to understand or empathize with the culture he is studying, but in a vindictive and fraudulent attempt to maintain his glorious position in academe: enraged by the public insult he received at the “annual anthro convention,” when some of his fellow anthropologists got up and walked out of the presentation of his Folsom Man theory, Reynolds has been making his own transition Folsom points and craftily planting them for Isaacs to unearth and catalogue along with authentic clews in the Folsom Man mystery. Thus, like the author of a detective story, Reynolds starts with a mystery, constructs a solution, then crafts and plants artifacts in his narrative for his reader to follow to this solution. Central to this literary-pastoral endeavor is a double salvific act which solidly restores the anthropologist to his Eden in academe, while banishing “reborn” Folsom Man to the reservation.

Leaphorn's uncovering of the archeological clew fraudulently intended to complete Reynolds's narrative allows him to discover who killed Ernesto Cata. Having spent a dangerous and hallucination-filled night at Kothluwalawa, where the kachina-murderer almost catches him, Leaphorn unearths under the carcass of a deer a fetish which George Bowlegs had made and buried. Part of this fetish is the “broken tip of a stone lance point,” which turns out to have been taken by Cata from Reynolds's tool box. The matching fragment, the butt of this lance point, had been planted by Reynolds, then unearthed and catalogued by Isaacs. Reynolds's plan to bury the tip, i.e., to continue his narrative, was interrupted by Cata's theft. Bowlegs then buried the fraudulent tip in his own cross-cultural narrative attempt to reach his dead Zuni friend, for whose death he probably felt guilty and was seeking expiation at Kothluwalawa.

This “theft,” the motive for the murder, is a cross-cultural pivot at which attribution of guilt should become paradoxical. The stolen object, the broken tip of the lance point—the fraudulent clew in the archeological narrative—is the “true” clew in the detective narrative. Around this point, conceptual oppositions such as truth/fiction, authentic/inauthentic, law/love, letter/figure, upon which both ethnographic and detective narratives depend, are, to employ the argot of deconstruction, problematized, placed in quotes, suspended, by the narrative itself.

At this pivot the question of guilt can be posed and answered from two contradictory ethnocentric viewpoints. From the Anglo viewpoint—that of the academic anthropologist—Cata has stolen important pieces of evidence in the archeological narrative. From a Native American viewpoint—that of Bowlegs—it is not Cata but the anthropologist who is the thief; indeed, the entire archeological narrative constitutes the pilfering of the Native American cultural heritage. As a pivotal point at which two ethnocentric viewpoints meet, the theft can be judged by an ethnocentrically confrontational and contradictory verdict: guilty and not guilty. Or it can be judged by a relativist and amoral non-verdict: neither guilty nor not guilty. There is, however, buried in Reynolds's archeological narrative and in Hillerman's text, an ironic twist which makes Bowlegs and Cata guilty of a theft from both opposing ethnocentric viewpoints. Since Leaphorn concludes that Reynolds is guilty of counterfeiting the artifacts Cata has stolen, these artifacts do not actually belong to authentic Native American culture, but rather to Native American culture as Reynolds has crafted it, both in theory and in flint. It is thus Reynolds's original guilt of the fraud, his original anthropological and ethnocentric sin, his scientifically counterfeiting clews, that undermines the Native American viewpoint, entangling Bowlegs and Cata in a narrative in which they are guilty from the viewpoint of either culture.

This ironic twist in Hillerman's text is conceptually similar to Lévi-Strauss's construction of a middle way, a penitent vision in which scientific rigor and objectivity are maintained and allegedly non-ethnocentric moral judgments can be made. In both cases a guilty verdict now imposes itself. In conceiving ethnographic narrative as guilt-driven, attributing the emergence of anthropology in the West to cultural guilt felt for a “genocidal original sin,” Lévi-Strauss universalizes the narrative of his own culture's concepts of original sin and guilt. The critic-detective digging in Lévi-Strauss's pastoral garden will unearth the core of the apple from which Adam and Eve ate in the Garden of Eden. This metaphorical and metaphysical artifact is to Judaeo-Christian narrative what the broken tip of a stone lance point is to Reynolds's archeological narrative: proof of original narrative sin.

Folsom Man's disappearance in prehistory, owing to his apparent refusal to give up his aesthetically pleasing but economically inefficient fluted lance tips, is a paradoxical variation of the Old Testament story of the Fall: Folsom Adam's sin was that he refused to sin. Although he was not expulsed from the harmony of his American Eden, he died anyway: “Et in America ego.” Folsom Man's hypothetical adjustment and introduction into history, into the grand narrative of Western History, is achieved by projecting a version of the Judaeo-Christian story of Fall and Salvation onto Folsom Man, who is saved by the divine anthropologist.

Leaphorn, however, is much less sure of proving the verdict of his narrative from his clew than Lévi-Strauss was sure of the validity of his universalized middle way at the time of writing Tristes tropiques. Leaphorn's skepticism is similar to that of an older Lévi-Strauss, who stirred up a controversy in a talk he gave before UNESCO in 1971 by comparing cultures to trains:

[O]ne could say that cultures are like trains moving each on its own track, at its own speed, and in its own direction. The trains rolling alongside ours are permanently present for us; through the windows of our compartments, we can observe at our leisure the various kinds of car, the faces and gestures of the passengers. But if, on an oblique or a parallel track, a train passes in the other direction, we perceive only a vague, fleeting, barely identifiable image, usually just a momentary blur in our visual field, supplying no information about the event itself and merely irritating us because it interrupts our placid contemplation of the landscape which serves as the backdrop to our day-dreaming. … We literally move along with this reference system, and the cultural systems established outside it are perceptible to us only through the distortions imprinted upon them by our system. Indeed, it may even make us incapable of seeing those other systems.

(The View from Afar 10-11)

Following this metaphor, Leaphorn, who occasionally admits that he does not understand “white men” (Hillerman 159), would have to continually jump back and forth between the Anglo train, where he has met anthropologists and police, and the Navajo train, in which he rides in beauty. This implies not so much that he does not understand the narrative in which he is a player, but that he does not agree with the certainty of its solution. Leaphorn follows the clew, rereading the archeological and the detective narratives, only to arrive at the impossibility to prove the solution, which he had admirably constructed following the Navajo values of harmonious, causal reasoning:

The fragment of flint in Leaphorn's palm became a sort of keystone. Around it the pieces of the puzzle of why Ernesto Cata had to die fell exactly into place. … He sat stockstill, sorting it very precisely in chronological order, checking for flaws, assigning to each of those deeds which had seemed so irrational a logical cause. He knew now why two murders had been committed. And he knew he couldn't prove it—could probably never prove it.

(144-45; emphasis added)

The doubt about proof expressed in the last line of the above quotation and the skeptical attitude Leaphorn earlier exhibited towards Reynolds's proving his solution to the mystery of Folsom man—“It seemed to Leaphorn a hard case to prove” (31)—are matching fragments which Hillerman has crafted and planted in different parts of his text for the reader to dig up and put together to form an epistemic clew that should instill skepticism about both a solution and an absolution in the narratives.

Leaphorn conjectures that Reynolds realized that Cata's and Bowlegs's interest in Zuni religion and Cata's scrupulous Catholic morality might well result in Cata's confessing his theft to his priest and returning the stolen artifacts to Isaacs as penance. Upon learning where and when the fragment had been stolen, Isaacs would in all likelihood realize that Reynolds was salting the dig. Leaphorn's digging at the Dance Hall of the Dead thus allows him to read Reynolds's archeological dig as a fraud-tainted, homicidal, ethnocentric narrative upon which Reynolds's and Isaacs's anthropological careers are founded. Revealing Reynolds as the murderer-kachina would thus fragment the narrative, causing the foundation of both detective story and ethnography to crumble.

Thus, the salted dig as a metaphor for the ethnographic detective story holds up a mirror to Hillerman's narrative. His ethnographic detective story is salted. It is guilty of an analogous, though admittedly much less abhorrent, ethnocentric counterfeiting. Joe Leaphorn, Hillerman's atypical Native American detective with a B.A. and an M.A. in anthropology, shares the same status as Reynolds's Folsom Man. They are both hypothetical inventions whose telos are to provide narrative continuity. Hillerman's narrative allows a credible cross-cultural survival of disappearing Navajo culture in Western literature, just as Reynolds's “modification theory” posits the history of a prehistoric survival of missing Folsom Man for anthropology textbooks. Furthermore, Joe Leaphorn, as narrative artifact, resembles the counterfeited lance point that is the keystone in his piecing together of the narrative that reveals the fraud and the murder in the anthropologist's narrative. Leaphorn has been crafted as the result of the ethnographic interests of Tony Hillerman. It is upon Leaphorn as artifact that the narrative and the author's professional success depend.

In the crafting of the cross-cultural, textual metaphor, the salted dig, and in the murder of Cata, the cultural guilt in which Lévi-Strauss grounds ethnography, the ethnocentric guilt and the personal guilt for murder are gathered on the anthropologist-murderer-kachina. This symbol of expiation, this guilty anthropologist, this fraudulently divine bringer of punishment, should incarnate a perfect sacrificial victim at the textual junction of personal and cultural guilt. Following the sacrificial hypothesis put forward by René Girard,11 Reynolds's expulsion from the narrative at the hands of the Zunis during the Shalako festival should restore order and absolve guilt at the crucial point in the detective story where the crime is solved and the murderer brought to justice. Following Auden's pastoral schema, this is the point where the community is returned to grace, where the detective story reader should feel absolved of guilt. However, in Dance Hall of the Dead this absolution remains incomplete both as absolution and as solution.

The anthropologist's punishment, as well as the knowledge of his multiple guilt, remains unknown to all but Leaphorn, Isaacs, and a small group of Zunis. Officially, Reynolds is “missing” at the end of the story, and the entire case is mentioned as “unsolved” in a later novel, A Thief of Time. Reynolds's punishment, like Cata's theft of the “artifacts,” is a cross-cultural pivot in the narrative. Seen from a Zuni viewpoint, this violent elimination of the anthropologist from the narrative is just. In impersonating the Salamobia, the anthropologist has violated the one Zuni taboo that is punishable by death. Seen from an Anglo viewpoint, this disappearance constitutes the crime of vigilantism and of destroying evidence.

Furthermore, although the Zunis' act is not motivated by vindictiveness, Reynolds's demise shortly after he has shot George Bowlegs, who was offering him a prayer plume also made with a lance point—this one unbroken, “a perfect gift to the gods” (151)—satisfies the Anglo-European desire for vengeance. Reynolds's disappearance ethnocentrically brings together the narrator's and the reader's sympathy for the Native American victims and one of the traits of Western culture that Joe Leaphorn and other Navajos are often depicted in Hillerman's text as having great difficulty understanding: the white man's unrelenting vindictiveness.

Reynolds's disappearance probably makes it impossible to prove in court the narrative of the anthropologist's multiple guilt. Leaphorn makes this proof even more difficult, thereby drawing guilt onto himself, when, standing before the somewhat slow Isaacs, he literally destroys the clew crucial to both narratives:

“Come on,” Leaphorn said. “Can't you understand what I'm saying?” His voice was angry. He took the lance tip from Isaacs' palm, opened the jaws of the vise on the workbench, and held the flint between them while he screwed the vise closed. Under the pressure, the flint crumbled bled into fragments. “I'm saying nobody's going to guess this bastard of a dig was salted unless you tell it was—and then maybe they won't believe you. Who in hell would believe the great Chester Reynolds would salt a dig? You think they'd believe a Navajo cop?” Leaphorn dusted the flint dust from his fingers. “A cop who doesn't have a shred of evidence?”


With the pulverization of this fragment, Leaphorn destroys the keystone to the solution of the mysteries of Folsom Man's disappearance, Ernesto Cata's disappearance, Shorty and George Bowlegs's murders, and Reynolds's disappearance. In doing this, Leaphorn opens a gap in the archeological and the detective narratives. Nevertheless, Joe Leaphorn as narrative artifact replaces the pulverized clew. Leaphorn, anthropologist, Navajo, and detective, provides the narrator with a cross-cultural viewpoint where the conflicting answers to the question of guilt according to different cultures meet in a paradoxical closing of the interrupted narrative.

The remaining butt of the broken flint point, the tip of which Leaphorn pulverized, and the dig, the textual metaphor, are left for Isaacs to do with according to his creed. Isaacs, whom Hillerman originally conceived as the murderer in this novel (Hillerman and Bulow 38), can no longer be the innocent reader of the archeological narrative or of the detective narrative in which he figures. Leaphorn leaves him two choices. He can make an anthropologist's confession à la Lévi-Strauss, a Triste Nouveau Mexique, revealing Reynolds's fraud and deconstructing the foundation of his academic career, which Reynolds had constructed. Or he can step into Reynolds's shoes, sublating himself from the position of reader who has lost innocence to that of cynical, amoral reader, author and professor; as such his conviction of the solution to the mystery of Folsom Man obliges him to espouse foundationalist values, while knowing that his academic success is founded on the suspension of oppositions such as fact/fiction, truth/falsehood, authentic/inauthentic, history/story, upon which those foundationalist values depend.

Isaacs at the end of the novel can be seen as representing the contemporary Western intellectual who still wants to believe that reason can construct a universal theory of anti-ethnocentrism. He wants to believe that his values are embedded in some metaphysical substrate that is either exterior or interior to humankind—or perhaps both. Nevertheless, he depends upon the interruption of the detective narrative in order to maintain the fiction of the completion of the ethno-graphic narrative

Just as the butt of the counterfeited lance point and the salted dig are left to Isaacs, the allegorical reader, to do with according to his creed, so Hillerman's Joe Leaphorn and Dance Hall of the Dead are left for the reader to do with as she/he sees fit. If the reader assumes an Enlightenment vision guided by universal reason to purge all ethno-centrism from the story, to seek anti-ethnocentric truth and authenticity, then it is Leaphorn who will have to be sacrificed, expulsed from the narrative—pulverized in the vise of truth and scientific objectivity, for within Leaphorn the ethnographic knowledge crucial to the narrative is the trace of guilt, the anthropological supplement upon which the anti-ethnocentric telos of Hillerman's narrative depends. If the reader assumes a postmodern liberal bourgeois viewpoint as formulated by Rorty, then foundationalist contradictions are unearthed in the text and pulverized in the vise of deconstruction. If the reader assumes a pastoral penitent vision à la Lévi-Strauss, Leaphorn becomes a double agent of love and of law. He is a privileged passenger who can follow the younger Lévi-Strauss, “middle way” in the older more skeptical Lévi-Strauss's controversial metaphor: by jumping back and forth between the Native American and the Anglo trains, Leaphorn amuses and instructs passengers on both. Each jump is occasioned by guilt, by one or more crimes. Leaphorn figures in Hillerman's contribution to the “sentimental education” which Rorty proclaims as the successor to theological and philosophical meta-narrative in the contemporary attempt to go beyond the debate between either the absolutist ethnocentrism or naïve anti-ethnocentrism of essentialist (or Platonists) and the not undangerous philosophical relativism of Niezsche (Rorty “Human Rights” 15).


  1. Among the best known non-Anglo or non-European detectives are Arthur Upfield's Napolean Bonaparte, a half-caste Australian aborigine with a Western education, impeccable British manners, and a neolithic hunter-gatherer's knowledge of the Outback; Harold Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan; and more recently C. Q. Yarbro's Charles Moon, an Ojibwa attorney who combines his Bay Area yuppie tastes with Native American “medecine.”

  2. Jim Chee has his B.A. in anthropology; Joe Leaphorn has both a B.A. and M.A. Hillerman told me in a personal communication that, if he were younger, he would like to become an anthropologist.

  3. Telephone conversation with Tony Hillerman, September 17, 1993.

  4. Rorty's comments are part of an exchange with Clifford Geertz who, in the 1985 Tanner Lecture on Human Value delivered at the University of Michigan, pointed the finger of opprobrium at Claude Lévi-Strauss for having espoused a “relax-and-enjoy-it ethnocentrism” in a controversial talk he gave before UNESCO in 1971.

  5. Rorty's reasoning is similar to that of Jacques Derrida who, in “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” formulates what could be called the ethnologist's paradox:

    Now ethnology—like any science—comes about within the element of discourse. And it is primarily a European science, employing traditional concepts, however much it may struggle against them. Consequently, whether he wants to or not—and this does not depend on a decision on his part—the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentrism at the very moment when he denounces them. This necessity is irreducible; it is not a historical contingency. We ought to consider all its implications very carefully.


  6. I have used the British spelling in order to emphasize the narrative linearity and continuity implicit in the meaning of “clew” as the ball of yarn used by Theseus to find his way out of the Labyrinth rather than the single signifier denoted by “clue.”

  7. In his essay on the detective story, Auden sketches a reader response theory grounded in the reader's own feelings of guilt:

    The fantasy, then, which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as law. The driving force behind this daydream is the feeling of guilt, the cause of which is unknown to the dreamer. The fantasy of escape is the same, whether one explains the guilt in Christian, Freudian, or any other terms. One's way of trying to face the reality, on the other hand, will of course, depend very much on one's creed.


  8. James Clifford, in “On Ethnographic Allegory,” places “salvage, or redemptive ethnography” (to which he assigns much of the work of Lévi-Strauss) in the Western philosophico-literary tradition of the pastoral (113-15).

  9. One might point out that “detective stories” were a part of Chinese literature long before the West even had a clew to their existence. Chinese crime and punishment narratives, however, are quite different in plot, character and treatment of guilt and expiation from the Western detective story. Robert Van Gulik reworked the stories of Judge Dee, the best known Chinese magistrate-detective, to suit western literary criteria. Van Gulik also translated some of the shorter Chinese stories. For a summary of differences between Chinese and Western detective stories, see the preface to his translation of the Dee Gong An (ii-iv).

  10. Reynolds's hypothesis, as read by Leaphorn, could be said to belong to what Edward M. Bruner has referred to as the “dominant story constructed about Native American culture change [which] saw the present as disorganization, the past as glorious, and the future as assimilation” (139). Bruner contrasts this old dominant story, told by ethnologists in the 1930s and 1940s, to the new post-World War II narrative in which “the present is viewed as a resistance movement, the past as exploitation, and the future as ethnic resurgence” (139).

  11. Girard's argument in Violence and the Sacred can be shown not only to be ethnocentric and universalizing, but also to belong to the tradition of Christian proselytizing discourse with which Lévi-Strauss, Derrida, Geertz, Rorty and Hillerman would have little sympathy.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “The Guilty Vicarage.” The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays. New York: Random, 1962.

Bruner, Edward M. “Ethnography as Narrative.” The Anthropology of Experience. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Clifford, James, and George E. Marcus, eds. Writing Culture. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Urbana: U of Chicago P, 1978.

Geertz, Clifford. “The Uses of Diversity.” Michigan Quarterly Review 25.1 (Winter 1986): 105-23.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Hillerman, Tony. Dance Hall of the Dead. New York: Avon, 1975.

Hillerman, Tony, and Ernie Bulow. Talking Mysteries. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1991.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes tropiques. Paris: Plon, 1955.

———. The View from Afar. New York: Basic, 1985.

Rorty, Richard. “On Ethnocentrism: A Reply to Clifford Geertz,” Michigan Quarterly Review 25.3 (Summer 1986): 525-34.

———.“Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” Yale Review 81.4 (October 1993): 1-20.

———. Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee. Trans. Robert Hans Van Gulik. New York: Arno, 1976.

Harriet Waugh (review date 6 December 1997)

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SOURCE: Waugh, Harriet. Review of The Fallen Man, by Tony Hillerman. Spectator 279, no. 8836 (6 December 1997): 46-7.

[In the following review, Waugh offers a positive assessment of The Fallen Man, asserting that the novel is among Hillerman's best work.]

Modern living and modern publishing often seem to force crime writers to produce thin, badly thought out novels, unworthy of their best work. Tony Hillerman is not one of these. The Fallen Man is, as usual, set in Navajos National Park, New Mexico and has acting Lieutenant Jim Chee of the tribal police investigating the death of a man whose skeleton is found under the peak of Ship Rock, a sacred mountain. He is also investigating some local cattle-rustling. His mind is, however, on other things, particularly his floundering romance with a pretty, Americanised lawyer. In consequence, it is his old, retired boss Leaphorn who does most of the salient investigation on this one.

The skeleton turns out to be that of Hal Breedlove, who went missing 11 years earlier, a week after his 30th birthday, when he inherited a large ranch. He left an inconsolable young widow who still runs the ranch with her environmentalist brother Dermott and some pretty angry cousins, who had hoped to develop the ranch for its molybdenum deposits had Hal lived. Leaphorn is hired by the cousins to investigate how Hal came to die (they suspect he was murdered), and as interest quickens in Hal's life and death others are murdered and Chee is attacked. Good detective work is, as always, at the centre of developments and at the end justice is delivered after a fashion, although truth is subverted for the greater good.

Christine C. Menefee (review date January 1999)

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SOURCE: Menefee, Christine C. “Adult Books for Young Adults.” School Library Journal 45, no. 1 (January 1999): 158-59.

[In the following excerpt, Menefee calls The First Eagle “a disturbing but fascinating story,” and praises Hillerman's skillful portrayal of the southwestern landscape and its Native American culture and people.]

[In The First Eagle] acting Lieutenant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is investigating the murder of a fellow officer—apparently committed by a young Hopi poaching eagles for ceremonial purposes. Chee's former mentor, Joe Leaphorn, is now retired and on his first case as a private detective, looking for a missing biologist who has been studying the spread of infectious diseases on the reservation. The men's destinies intersect once more in this case in which clues, like eagles, can only be found and understood by those who belong to the world of the reservation. Hillerman communicates a sense of the great space, beauty, and physical hardship of the desert landscape, and of the character of the people who live there. The mystery is set against a cultural backdrop of conflicts between Navajo and Hopi, Tribal and FBI law enforcement, sheep camp and city Navajo, and government and academic scientists studying disease outbreaks. The solution to the murder mystery comes stunningly into focus once the clues are all present and understood—but sadly (and true to life), the larger question of justice on the reservation, like the fate of the first eagle, is left unresolved. A disturbing but fascinating story.

Jane Langton (review date 28 November 1999)

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SOURCE: Langton, Jane. “‘Hunting’ for Balance, Power: Hillerman's Latest Ranks among the Best.” Boston Herald (28 November 1999): 59.

[In the following review, Langton ranks Hunting Badger among Hillerman's best novels, contending the author utilizes a vivid sense of landscape and strong development of his two central characters.]

“You tell them the Power that made us, made all this above us and around us and we are part of the Power and if we do as we are taught we can bring ourselves back into hozho. Back into harmony. Then they will again know beauty all around them.”

These are the dying words of Hosteen Frank Sam Nakai to his nephew, Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navaho Tribal Police. Nakai is not a dreamy New Age prophet—he speaks the inherited lore of his people. His wisdom is part of what makes Hunting Badger one of Tony Hillerman's tip-top best.

In the new book, a murder at an Indian casino run by the Utes remains unsolved. Rumor has it that the perpetrators have stolen a small plane and flown it across the border. Chee hopes so, because the problem would then be out of his bailiwick. He doesn't want to find himself in the middle of an enormous manhunt like the FBI fiasco of 1998.

The 1998 manhunt actually happened, and the fictional one soon develops into the same kind of circus. It takes tireless legwork by Chee and his old boss, Joe Leaphorn, as they seek the truth from a handful of plausible but lying scoundrels and a few elders for whom power is neither guns nor money but hozho, Nakai's state of beauty and harmony. The tension between these two kinds of power is the energy that enlivens this book.

There are two great satisfactions in every Hillerman novel. One is the sense of the landscape of the Four Corners, the 85 million acres of Indian reservation spread out around the point where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet, “the land between the Sacred Mountains.”

Without overblown adjectives, Hillerman portrays that beautiful country with its enormous skies, its canyons and cottonwoods, its rugged cliffs and towering buttes of basalt. But it is also today's New Mexico, with its casinos and Chevron stations, its endlesss stretches of highway, its telephone poles leading off cross-country to remote ranches where the inhabitants have sometimes been “turned eccentric by an overdose of dramatic skyscapes, endless silence and loneliness.”

The second satisfaction readers seek in a new Hillerman novel is reuniting with the two Navaho policemen who work their way so doggedly through one puzzling case after another.

Chee is steady, patient and thoughtful, with the courtesy of a born Navaho. The “legendary” Leaphorn, like Chee, is softspoken, but older and perhaps more brilliant. Both are laconic on the surface but touchingly real in their self-doubt, their regrets, their old and new affections. Will Leaphorn give Chee the praise he deserves? Not often, but when he does it is so satisfying.

There is extra fun here in ridicule aimed at the fumbling Federal Bureau of Investigation and at the “outrages committed by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Park Service, and other federal, state and county agencies against the well-being of various folks who live their hardscrabble lives along the Utah border canyon country.”

How to sum up the experience of reading a novel by Tony Hillerman? Perhaps the greatest thing is the masterful simplicity of the telling, made rich and complex by a profound understanding of the territory.

Anthony Day (review date 2 January 2000)

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SOURCE: Day, Anthony. “Hillerman's Best Yet.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (2 January 2000): 10.

[In the following review, Day praises Hunting Badger, calling the novel “skillful and convincing.”]

Hunting Badger is the 13th of Tony Hillerman's mystery novels featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, and it is one of his most successful. Hillerman combines evocative descriptions of the rugged landscape and people of the Four Corners area of the Southwest, a sensitive appreciation of Navajo culture torn between tradition and modernism and a lively contemporary plot to make a jaunty and satisfying tale of intrigue, deception and surprise.

This fictional story recalls—and refers to—a real one in the same area. On May 4, 1998, three men shot and killed a Colorado police officer. An immense search, led by an incompetently bureaucratic FBI team, failed to find the killers. (The body of one of them was found recently in the Four Corners area and labeled a suicide.)

Hunting Badger opens at the casino on the Ute Indian reservation. It is a fine summer night, after 3 a.m. The lightning on the distant hills signifies that the summer monsoon season is about to begin. Designed to bring money to the reservation from the outside, the casino has, as always on payday on the reservation, been exceptionally busy. The cash from the tables and slots is bundled and tied, waiting for the armored truck. Two pickups pull into the parking lot. From one a man swings out a ladder and climbs to the casino roof. Two other men head for the “Employees Only” door. A security guard outside challenges them. They shoot him before he can get his pistol out and also gravely wound another guard.

Meanwhile Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is back home in his trailer under the cottonwood trees along the San Juan River just off the Shiprock-Cortez highway. Chee is happy. He has a few days of vacation left. And he has finally ended his relationship with Janet Pete, the bright part-Navajo woman who would never have been happy on the reservation, just as he never could be off it. Joe Leaphorn is not so happy. After three years, he still misses his dead, much loved wife. And he doesn't have enough to do after his retirement as lieutenant in the tribal police. But the murders at the casino draw Leaphorn and Chee back into partnership again as the manhunt for the murderers widens.

Hillerman weaves into his tale several strands of the contemporary Southwest, including militiamen and stubborn ranchers who think that grazing on public land is a God-given right. These, like many other proud and ornery people who inhabit that austere, unforgiving land, harbor a deep distrust of the federal government and all its agents.

Hillerman embellishes this attitude with his unflattering portrait of the barely competent FBI agents, instantly detectable by lawman and crook alike as they appear at crime scenes in their shiny black Ford Taurus sedans.

By contrast his depiction of the Navajo and their ancient ways is affectionate. Here are the words of a dying yataalii, a famous shaman who sang the Blessing Way, the Mountain Top Chant, the Night Way and other ceremonials, who is desperately unhappy that he is trapped in a Farmington, N.M., hospital when he should be dying under the stars in his camp in the Chuska Mountains: “The bilagaana [white people] do not understand death,” he said. “It is the other end of the circle, not something that should be fought and struggled against. Have you noticed that people die at the end of night, when the stars are still shining in the west and you can sense the brightness of Dawn Boy on the eastern mountains? That's so Holy Wind within them can go to bless the new day.”

The Navajo nation has given Hillerman its Special Friend Award, and the Mystery Writers of America, of which he is a past president, has named him a recipient of its Edgar and Grand Master awards. Why he well deserves both, and why he deserves his readers' thanks for fast-paced mysteries set in an authentic, unusual background; is well illustrated by his skillful and convincing Hunting Badger.

Anthony Day (review date 16 November 2001)

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SOURCE: Day, Anthony. “Hillerman Puts Himself in the Plot.” Los Angeles Times (16 November 2001): E5.

[In the following review, Day asserts that Hillerman's Seldom Disappointed contains a vivid, matter-of-fact writing style, and points to the description of the author's experiences in combat during World War II as among the most powerful sections of the book.]

In this genial memoir [Seldom Disappointed] 75-year-old New Mexico writer Tony Hillerman looks back at his life and finds it good. That is not surprising, considering that Hillerman has been happily married for half a century, has six children, five of them adopted, and has won fame and fortune writing mysteries set in the stark and beautiful Navajo Nation of the Southwest.

Hillerman's Navajo sleuths, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are like old friends to millions of readers, and in Seldom Disappointed, Hillerman explains why he created them and how he did his research into the ways of the Dineh, the Navajo people. That is all interesting, but what jumps out of the book, quivering with energy, is Hillerman's account of his service in a mortar platoon in an infantry company in France during World War II. Not the familiar story of the Normandy landings and the sweep east across the plains of northern France, but the autumn and winter push up from the south by the 7th Army through the frightful Vosges Mountains in Alsace into Germany east of the Saarland.

It is vivid writing, matter-of-fact but intense and utterly believable. Hillerman never rose above private first class. He and his buddies almost never knew what was going on, what their mission was or even, sometimes, where they were. They just tried to do what they were told. They were frightened. They were sometimes bored. They were hungry and exhausted, and they got horribly wounded, and many, many of them were killed. In the military cemetery St. Avold, 20 headstones bear the names of men from Hillerman's company, Charley, “and scores more from Able and Baker companies,” he writes. They were all in a battalion in the 103rd Infantry Division.

Hillerman doesn't seem to have a high regard for most of his officers, but in those days, few draftees did. He also has a low opinion of Army Intelligence, which always seemed to find Germans in places where they weren't and miss them in places where they were. Nor was German Intelligence better, but the Germans had noticed that in Europe it snows in the winter, so their troops wore white uniforms, while the Americans were stuck with their very visible olive drab.

One day there was a violent fight, and Hillerman was later awarded the Bronze Star for his valor. He wasn't sure why he got one when others didn't. Yet he writes proudly that the Combat Infantryman's Badge is the finest decoration the Army can give. And on another day in another blur of noisy combat, Hillerman stepped on an antipersonnel mine, and his war was over. First he was blinded in both eyes, then sight returned to his right and dimly to his left. He spent March through July in an army hospital in Aix-en-Provence, then was shipped home. He says he got through all this because his mother taught him never to be afraid, and his father taught him not to bear grudges. When he writes that, he is to be believed.

Afterward, studying journalism at the University of Oklahoma on the GI Bill, he started working at a newspaper in the Texas Panhandle. He moved on to a wire service job in Santa Fe when New Mexico and its politics were even more rough-and-tumble than they are now. All the while, Hillerman wanted to be a writer of fiction, even when he spent, after his stint in journalism, 20 years as an administrator and teacher at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He started his Navajo mysteries with The Blessing Way in 1970, but it was not until 1988 that he published his “breakout book,” The Thief of Time, about one archeologist working on Anasazi pottery near the San Juan River who murders another. It made the bestseller lists and was translated into 17 languages.

True to its title, Seldom Disappointed is the picture of a man molded and enriched by the searing experiences of the war and the good fortune of his life. Hillerman is clearly at home in that skin.


Tony Hillerman Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis