Detective novelist, Tony Hillerman, died last night at age 83. His detective novels were not only engaging they had the rare ability of bringing complex Navajo characters and world views to life for readers across racial and ethnic boundaries. In 1970 his first book with acclaimed Lt. Joe Leaphorn was first published and my favorite character, Jim Chee, was introduced in a seperate series in 1978. They met in my favorite book by Hillerman, The Skinwalkers, in 1989. Several of his books, including Skinwalkers, were made into succesful tv movies, while his one feature film bombed at the box office.
At the heart of his books were questions of assimilation and cultural heritage, so-called “modernity” and cultural survival. They questioned faith, belief systems, and how to move within many worlds. Hillerman based his books on the knowledge and friendships he gained from going to an Indian school near his home when his parents discovered that the local school was being taught by an alleged Klan member. While some accused him of exploiting this knowledge, the Navajo awarded him with a Friend of the Dine’ Award acknowledging his writing as a bridge through which people might understand Navajo culture. As a writer of a pulp genre his readership was much wider and varied than that of academic research on the Dine’, that may have gotten things wrong or come by their information through ethically questionable means, though not always. He also taught Journalism in Kansas and New Mexico and often appeared with indigenous authors at books signings, lending his success to their circulation.
I will miss him not only because of my unabashed love of detective novels but also because in writing about the American Southwest, he once said
Those places that stir me are empty and lonely
And as sad as it may sound to people who only understand those words in their negatives, I often feel the same way. There is something unique about the desert, and if you let it change you, the whole world looks and moves differently and is a little more precious.
- Hillerman. unattributed
- Cast of Skinwalkers. unattributed