Three years after Tony Hillerman's death on October 25, 2008 at age 83, we look back at his acclaimed novels and the way of the Navajo. Originally published October 2008 on Obit-Mag.com.
Tony Hillerman, a detective novelist from the American Southwest, infused his narratives with the ceremonies, customs, beliefs and worldview of the Navajo. Over the course of 18 novels and a forty-year career, he told the story of Detective Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the police chief of a small Native American town who bridged the sordid world of crime and the spiritual world of the Navajo.
Novels like The Blessing Way (1970), Skinwalkers (1987) and Ghostway (1984) became bestsellers. Reviewers praised Hillerman for artfully rendering the Southwest as a vast psychological space. Members of the Navajo community praised Hillerman for reigniting interest in and fostering knowledge of Navajo ways. Ultimately it was praise from the Navajo community that Hillerman valued highest.
Hillerman once said: “Good reviews delight me when I get them. But I am far more delighted by being voted the most popular author by the students of St. Catherine Indian school, and even more by middle-aged Navajos who tell me that reading my mysteries revived their children’s interest in the Navajo Way.”
Here’s an excerpt from the 2004 novel, The Skeleton Man…
Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, retired, had been explaining how the complicated happening below the Salt Woman Shrine illustrated his Navajo belief in universal connections. The cause leads to inevitable effect. The entire cosmos being an infinitely complicated machine all working together. His companions, taking their mid-morning coffee break at the Navajo Inn, didn't interrupt him. But they didn't seem impressed.
"I'll admit the half-century gap between the day all those people were killed here and Billy Tuve trying to pawn that diamond for twenty dollars is a problem," Leaphorn said. "But when you really think about it, trace it all back, you see how one thing kept leading to another. The chain's there."
Captain Pinto, who now occupied Joe Leaphorn's preretirement office in the Navajo Tribal Police Headquarters, put down his cup. He signaled a refill to the waitress who was listening to this conversation, and waited a polite moment for Leaphorn to explain this if he wished. Leaphorn had nothing to add. He just nodded, sort of agreeing with himself.
"Come on, Joe," Pinto said. "I know how that theory works and I buy it. Hard, hot wind blowing gets the birds tired of flying. One too many birds lands on a limb. Limb breaks off, falls into a stream, diverts water flow, undercuts the stream bank, causes a landslide, blocks the stream, floods the valley, changes the flora and that changes the fauna, and the folks who were living off of hunting the deer have to migrate. When you think back you could blame it all on that wind."
Pinto stopped, got polite, attentive silence from his fellow coffee drinkers, and decided to add a footnote.
"However, you have to do a lot of complicated thinking to work in that Joanna Craig woman. Coming all the way out from New York just because a brain-damaged Hopi tries to pawn a valuable diamond for twenty bucks."