Monday, October 27, 2008

Tony Hillerman – 1925-2008

Tony Hillerman, the mystery novelist who set his stories in the Navajo land, has died.

Mr. Hillerman’s evocative novels, which describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world, touched millions of readers, who made them best sellers. But although the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with a purpose, he often said, and that purpose was to instill in his readers a respect for Indian culture. The plots of his stories, while steeped in contemporary crime and its consequences, were invariably instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals for a soldier returned from a foreign war to incest taboos for a proper clan marriage.

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

Mr. Hillerman was not the first mystery writer to set a story on Indian land or to introduce a full-blooded Native American detective to crime literature. In 1946 the grand prize in the first short-story competition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine went to Manly Wade Wellman for the first of two stories he wrote with an Indian protagonist.

But beginning with “The Blessing Way” in 1970 the 18 novels Mr. Hillerman set on Southwest Indian reservations featuring Lieut. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, brought a new dimension to the character of the traditional genre hero.

Before, during, and after my years in New Mexico, I read his stories, and they gave me an introduction to the native cultures in New Mexico and the Southwest. I know I can never fully be a part of it, but through his words and his often humorous yet respectful look at the Navajo life, I came to appreciate it as a civilization of infinite dimensions and deeply honorable people.

I hold him and his spirit in the Light.