I traveled the Southwest before I ever read one of Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels.
But when I caught up to his savvy thrillers in the late 1980s, I realized that what Hillerman did for me and other readers was to open my eyes about that dry and haunting region.
In his 19 novels set largely on and around the Navajo Reservation, Hillerman enriched my experience of the desert landscape and took me into a world and culture I knew little about.
Hillerman, who died Oct. 26 at 83, was a gentle and humble man. He was large in body and spirit. In one conversation 20 years ago, as Hillerman was at the tipping point of best-sellerdom, he talked jovially about the little mistakes that cropped up in his books.
“I always put safeties on guns that don’t have safeties and leave them off ones that do,” the onetime reporter told me.
“The best one I’ve ever had,” he went on to say, “was when I got a call at 10 p.m. one night.”
From the other end of the line his caller told him this: “I used to have a lot of respect for you until I’ve just been reading ‘Dance Hall of the Dead.’ Don’t you know deer don’t have gall bladders?”
Hillerman laughed. But feedback like that fueled his desire to get back onto the saddle and make it better the next time. That made him the consummate craftsman, one whom readers eagerly followed into the desert night.
What Hillerman got right in his books was the lives of the people he wrote about and the drive of his stories. His focus included two major characters, Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee, of the Navajo Tribal Police. Leaphorn and Chee represented often conflicting sides of Navajo culture.
The elder Leaphorn shared the “Navajo belief in universal connections,” which always kept his detecting radar on high alert, but he tended to be most comfortable living in the modern world. Chee was younger, more the maverick, and kept being pulled into the ancient ways of tribal ritual and mysticism.
In the later books where both of them appeared and sometimes collided, the contrast added complexity to Hillerman’s already intricately woven tales. Both characters went through real-life experiences of loss, love and self-doubt that, over more than three decades, gave heart to Hillerman’s books.
That helped explain why Hillerman attracted many readers who tended not to read mysteries. But there was always something more - the cultural journey. Many of his readers, he said back then, were not so much interested in how a crime was solved.
“They’re interested,” he said, “in using the crime to illuminate something about sociology or human nature.”
Hillerman, an Oklahoma native, long lived in Albuquerque, N.M. As a belagaana, or white man, writing about the Navajo world - about poor people on an unforgiving land, about the bonds created by blood and tradition - Hillerman ended up being widely admired for the respect and warmth he brought to the job of telling other people’s stories.
I always got a sense of discovery in reading Hillerman’s novels, from “The Blessing Way,” his first, to “Skeleton Man,” the next to last. I learned not just about American Indians, but about conflicts involving anthropology, academia and bureaucracies. As tribal policemen, for example, Chee and Leaphorn were forced to defer, in matters of homicide, to the FBI, but you can imagine how much fun Hillerman had creatively engineering his protagonists around those guys.
Hillerman’s success helped spark what seemed like an explosion of thrillers in which specific landscapes beyond the traditional, gritty city - the woods of Maine or Alaska or Carl Hiaasen’s funny Florida - came to life as outsider detectives worked the case.
But it all came down to storytelling. And at that, Hillerman clearly stood among the best.
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