Tony Hillerman (AP Photo / Natasha Lane)
Embedding a mystery series in the Navajo culture wasn’t just a device to sell books for Tony Hillerman. He had been immersed in Indian relationships, lore and landscapes since childhood, and returned to that world after fighting in World War II, marrying, and moving from a cop reporter to journalism professor and newspaper executive. He wrote with a heart-and-soul connection based on experience, awe and admiration.
Hillerman, who died from pulmonary disease five years ago today at 83, ultimately wrote 18 books in his Navajo series featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. The books were translated into eight languages and won awards from the Western Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America, as well as France’s esteemed Grand prix de literature policiere.
Hillerman often said the award that meant the most to him came from the Navajo Nation, which named him a Special Friend of the Dineh in 1987 "as an expression of appreciation and friendship for authentically portraying the strength and dignity of the traditional Navajo culture."
Anthony Grove Hillerman was born and grew up in Sacred Heart in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, the youngest of three children born to a farmer/shopkeeper and his wife. His playground was the territorial land of the Potawatomie Tribe; he attended St. Mary’s Academy, a school for Indian boys, and played high school football with tribal teens.
He attended Oklahoma A&M College briefly before enlisting in the Army in World War II, fighting his way through France for two years as a rifleman. In 1945, he stepped on a mine and said he spent his long convalescence playing poker. Hillerman returned from war with the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart –– and a left eye in which he never fully regained vision.
He went back to school at the University of Oklahoma, graduating in 1948, and married Marie Unzner, a Phi Beta Kappa student in bacteriology, according to his obituary in the New York Times. They had one child and adopted five more. According to an article in the Albuquerque Journal North, Hillerman’s mother showed his war letters to the Daily Oklahoman, where an editor’s encouraging comments prompted Hillerman to switch from engineering to journalism.
He began his writing career as a crime reporter in the Texas Panhandle, became city editor of the Lawton, Okla. paper and a political reporter in Oklahoma City. Eventually, he worked his way up to executive editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican. From 1966 to 1987 he taught at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he began writing mysteries. He lived there for decades with his wife –– surviving two heart attacks, and prostate and bladder cancer surgeries.
Hillerman’s breakthrough book was Skinwalkers in 1986. Four of his books became Hollywood or TV movies but were not as successful in translation to the screen: The Dark Wind, Skinwalkers, American Mystery: A Coyote Waits and A Thief of Time.
Earlier this month, a new Leaphorn-Chee novel was released by Harper Collins, this one written by Anne Hillerman, Tony’s oldest child. The new book, Spider Woman’s Daughter, elevates Navajo police officer Bernadette Manuelito –– Chee’s wife –– into a bigger crime-solving role of her own. On the Amazon.com page for the book Anne writes: "When I emerged from the worst of my grief after Dad’s death, I realized that I was also mourning the end of his mystery series. I missed those detectives, and I especially regretted that Bernadette Manuelito would never get a book that put her in the spotlight."
Anne and her husband, photographer Don Strel, had collaborated with her father on Tony Hillerman’s Landscapes: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn, released in 2009, so she had a deep appreciation for his love for Native Americans and the western landscape.
"I have a weakness for empty places," Hillerman once said. The New York Times called it an "aching passion for place" that was evoked in the "nature of echoes, the smell of sage and wet sage, how the sky looks atop a tunnel of stone, the booming of thunder bouncing from one cliff to another."
Locations were almost characters in Hillerman’s novels, and he used them to educate readers about Indian culture. "It's always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures," Hillerman told Publishers Weekly. "I think it's important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways."
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."