I don’t know if we’ll ever see the likes of Tony Hillerman again. His gift of imagining life through the eyes of a culture not his own was developed through an impoverished childhood in Oklahoma (he was once quoted as saying that the Joads were the people with enough money to get to California), decorated combat service in World War II, a degree from the University of Oklahoma and years working as a journalist, then a master’s degree from the University of New Mexico which qualified him to become head of the department. This less-pressured career path (no SAT prep courses or Guggenheim grants required) is reflected in his writing, in particular his novels set in the American Southwest.
Dance Hall of the Dead, Hillerman’s third detective novel and his second featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police, was originally published in 1973 and won the 1974 Edgar Award of the Mystery Writers of America for best novel. The story begins with the disappearance of two teenage boys, one Navajo and one Zuñi. After the Zuñi boy is found murdered, the Navajo becomes a suspect, although many Zuñi attribute the murder to a kachina (spirit) because the murdered boy had communicated forbidden sacred knowledge to the Navajo.
Leaphorn’s investigation brings him into contact with a number of characters, each struggling with their own issues of identity and exclusion. George Bowlegs, the missing Navajo boy, is trying to learn about Zuñi spiritual ways to compensate for what he feels is lacking in his own community, but is rebuffed by the Zuñi who prefer to keep knowledge of their traditions within their own tribe. Members of the Golden Fleece commune are belagana (white people) who reject modern American life and are trying to create an alternative. Chester Reynolds, an anthropologist whose ideas have been mocked by members of his academic community, is desperate to find evidence which will vindicate his theories and win him a place of respect. Ted Isaacs, a young anthropologist working for Reynolds, seeks to escape his impoverished childhood through career success. The important question in each case is just how far each individual will go to get what they want, and what they’re willing to give up in order to get it.
Like some of Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes stories, in Dance Hall of the Dead Leaphorn fails to solve the mystery in time but justice is delivered from another quarter. And rather than try to impose his will upon a situation clearly beyond his control, Leaphorn leaves another character with a dilemma where the only constraints are that of personal integrity: he could get away with something which will get him exactly what he wants, and chances are good that he will never be caught. Now what will he do?
Hillerman was awarded a commendation by the Navajo Tribal Council for his sensitive portrayals of Navajo culture; his appreciation of Native American ways of life and of the stark landscapes of the American Southwest has won him many fans outside the Navajo community as well.
Although critical of certain aspects of the Native cultures, Hillerman reserves his sharpest satire for the Anglos who bumble into Native affairs armed with their dominant cultural status but devoid of understanding or appreciation for people outside their own narrow world. One such bumbler in Dance Hall of the Dead is FBI Agent John O’Malley, who becomes involved in the murder investigation. Leaphorn contemplates why all FBI agents seem to look and act the same and imagines the recruiting process:
He had a sudden vision of an office in the Department of Justice building in Washington, a clerk sending out draft notices to all the male cheerleaders and drum majors at U.S.C., Brigham Young, Arizona State, and Notre Dame, ordering them to get their hair cut and report for duty.
Maybe it doesn’t work quite like that, but it often seems like it does.