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The Passing of Tony Hillerman

Monday, October 27, 2008

“No matter how carefully you have the project planned, first chapters tend to demand rewriting. Things happen. New ideas suggest themselves, new possibilities intrude. Slow to catch on, I collected a manila folder full of perfect, polished, exactly right, pear-shaped first chapters before I learned this lesson. Their only flaw is that they don’t fit the book I finally wrote. Thus Hillerman’s First Law: Never polish the first chapter until the last chapter is written.”

Tony Hillerman, author of the acclaimed series of Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee/Navajo Nation mysteries, passed away yesterday at age eighty-three. Over the past few years, he’d battled cancer and survived a couple of heart attacks.

“I’m getting old, but I still like to write.”(2002)

Hillerman had written about Navajo tribal police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee separately in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until he brought the two characters together in the 1987 novel Skinwalkers that he started garnering commercial and critical success with his novels. The book sold 430,000 hardcover copies which launched him into the best-sellers lists for the next twenty years. In all, he wrote eighteen books in the series, in addition to many other fiction and nonfiction titles.

Though not usually a mystery reader myself, I’ve read most of Hillerman’s novels and thoroughly enjoyed them. His attention to detail—whether in character development, plotting, description of the setting, cultural flavor, or the intricately worked mystery—sucks the reader in and doesn’t let go until the last page.

“It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures. 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.”

Hillerman isn’t the only mystery writer to set his stories on a reservation or use Native American characters. But by choosing tribal police officers, and by creating two who are vastly different in their ages, beliefs, practices, and understanding of the world, his novels far exceed a typical whodunit that just happens to be set on an Indian reservation.

According to several articles, his first agent told him if he wanted to get published, he’d have to “get rid of that Indian stuff.”

When his books first started being published in the ’70s, some accused him of exploiting his knowledge of the Navajo for personal gain, but in 1987, with the success of Skinwalkers bringing a different and more positive type of attention to the Navajo Nation, Hillerman was awarded the Special Friend of the Dineh by the Navajo Tribal Council. He repeatedly said he took more pride in that than in what publishing professionals might consider even greater awards he received, like the Golden Spur Award from Western Writers of America, the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Mystery Novel, and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, or even being elected president of MWA.

“I cross-examine my Navajo friends and shamelessly hang around trading posts, police substations, rodeos, rug auctions and sheep dippings.”

After serving in the army, and sustaining a severe injury to his leg, in WWII, Hillerman had a long career in journalism: he worked as a reporter for almost twenty years before returning to graduate school and going into teaching, eventually becoming chairman of the journalism department at the University of New Mexico.

But journalistic writing just wasn’t fulfilling him. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to work in plastic instead of flint; make your own imagination drive the writing.'” And it was the Four Corners region and the Navajo people that provided the inspiration he sought.

“Those places that stir me are empty and lonely. They invoke a sense of both space and strangeness, and all have about them a sort of fierce inhospitality.” (from The Spell of New Mexico)

But it isn’t just the physical landscape that makes his writing so intense. It’s his understanding of the way the Navajo (and Hopi and Zuni) people live. The crimes that are committed and solved in each book are more than just murders or grave robbing—they are affronts to the harmony in which the Navajo people try to live their lives daily. The crime is greater, because it’s an attack on the culture of a People—and many times, the crimes include aspects that are meant to be such an attack, whether it’s the body being turned face down or certain tokens or symbols left behind as a message. “I want Americans to stop thinking of Navajos as primitive persons, to understand that they are sophisticated and complicated,” he said.

No matter what accolades or criticisms came Hillerman’s way, he never lost sight of who he was as a writer.

“It seems to me that I am writing what Graham Greene called ‘entertainments.’ My readers are buying a mystery, not a tome of anthropology. . . . The name of the game is telling stories.”

He will be missed.

3 Comments
  1. Monday, October 27, 2008 3:35 pm

    Indeed he will. He was my introduction, long ago, to the mystery genre.

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  2. Monday, October 27, 2008 4:53 pm

    Dear Kaye, I haven’t read him either as I don’t do much mystery, but my hubby enjoys listening to his books on audio. I do agree with his adage about the first chapter. When I first started writing, I spent too much time polishing the first chapter and not enough time on finishing the rest of the book! LOL Rose, who is back after taking a Margie lawson class online the past two weeks that took all my time. ps. congrats on the great weight loss for last week!

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  3. Wednesday, October 29, 2008 7:29 pm

    I didn’t know who he was, but I love that quote at the beginning of your post: “Never polish the first chapter until the last chapter is written.”

    What great, great advice!!

    Good luck on your WIP! 🙂

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