Tony Hillerman Hillerman, Tony - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tony Hillerman 1925-

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

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

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

Biographical Information

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

Major Works

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

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ralph B. Sipper (review date 25 July 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Orlando A. Romero (review date 9 July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jan Roush (essay date summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leonard Engel (essay date summer 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles Champlin (review date 3 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jean B. Palmer (review date November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Porsche (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Haward Bain (review date 22 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Dick Roraback (review date 19 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Penny Stevens (review date April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Brewster E. Fitz (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Harriet Waugh (review date 6 December 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christine C. Menefee (review date January 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jane Langton (review date 28 November 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anthony Day (review date 2 January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anthony Day (review date 16 November 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 485 words.)