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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

How effective is Tony Hillerman at making an unfamiliar world accessible to the reader? What techniques does he use?

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Which detective do you identify or empathize with more, Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee?

How do you think Hillerman’s having been trained as a journalist affects his approach to writing these mysteries?

Reviewers usually focus on how different Hillerman’s mysteries are, because of their ethnic detectives. What, however, do you think is traditional about his way of writing mysteries?

What solutions, if any, does Hillerman propose through his novels that might improve the tensions caused by cultural differences?


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Tony Hillerman’s seven novels set among the Indians of the American Southwest are an anomaly in detective fiction, yet his work embraces many of the characteristics of this genre. Hillerman tells a thinking person’s detective story. Indeed, his protagonists Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police are part of the problem-solving approach to crime that stretches back to Sherlock Holmes, whose powers of ratiocination enabled him to find the solution to the most intricate of crimes with a minimum of violence. Their powers of analysis, however, must be applied not only to the people who follow the Navajo way but also to the white society that surrounds their world. Leaphorn and Chee must enter into the white world and relate it to the Navajo way of thinking. Hillerman depicts their encounters with the clutter and alienation of urban life in a poignant prose that is tinged with sadness, but it is when he is exploring the physical and mythic landscapes of the Navajo people that his writing becomes truly poetic. It is this duality of viewpoint, which sheds light on both cultures and manages to emphasize the essential humanity of both peoples, that is Tony Hillerman’s major achievement.


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Browne, Ray B. “The Ethnic Detective: Arthur W. Upfield, Tony Hillerman, and Beyond.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Discusses the place of Hillerman’s Navajo detectives and other ethnic detectives in modern crime fiction and how they have affected it.

Coale, Samuel Chase. The Mystery of Mysteries: Cultural Differences and Designs. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 2000. A study of the mysteries of Amanda Cross, Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, and Walter Mosely, showing how these writers use the mystery genre to introduce the concerns of minorities into fiction.

Crawford, Brad. “Tony Hillerman.” Writer’s Digest 80, no. 1 (January, 2000): 8.

Erisman, Fred. Tony Hillerman. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1989. Highlights time, ethnicity, and crosscultural themes in Hillerman’s works.

Freese, Peter. The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman. Essen, Germany: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1992.

Greenberg, Martin, ed. The Tony Hillerman Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to His Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Provides an excellent and perceptive analysis of his writings and descriptions of his characters. This book was nominated for an Edgar in the Best Critical/Biographical Work category.

HarperCollins. Tony Hillerman. http://www.harper collins.com/authors/4488/Tony_Hillerman/. This is the official Web site for Tony Hillerman, hosted and maintained by his publisher. Aside from the predictable features of a commercial site, a biography and interview make this a worthwhile resource.

Herbert, Rosemary. The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Interview with Hillerman focuses on his life and how he came to write, including his relationship with the Navajo.

Hieb, Louis A. Tony Hillerman, from “The Blessing Way” to “Talking God”: A Bibliography. Tucson, Ariz.: The Press of the Gigantic Hound, 1990. A guide to critical literature.

Hillerman, Tony. Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Hillerman recollects his early life, including his service as an infantryman during World War II, his education, and his career as a journalist.

Knepper, Paul, and Michael B. Puckett. “The Historicity of Tony Hillerman’s Indian Police.” Journal of the West 34, no. 1 (1995): 13-18. Surveys the history of the Indian tribal police and compares the reality to Hillerman’s fiction.

Reilly, John M. Tony Hillerman: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. After chapters on Hillerman’s life and his place in the detective genre, Reilly covers the Leaphorn and Chee series book by book through Finding Moon.

Sobol, John. Tony Hillerman: A Public Life. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994. A popular biography. Dated, but full of information and enjoyable to read.

Templeton, Wayne. “Xojo and Homicide: The Postcolonial Murder Mysteries of Tony Hillerman.” In Multicultural Detective Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1998. In compiling a critical work on the role of ethnic culture in detective fiction, the novels of Tony Hillerman cannot be overlooked, though Hillerman does not himself belong to the culture about which he writes. This is a scholarly discussion.

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