VJ Books Blog

(guardian.co.uk, Oct 31, Michael Carlson)

Award-winning US mystery writer drawn to the world of the Navajo people.

Tony Hillerman‘s 18 mystery novels, set in the Navajo lands of south-west America, earned him first a cult following and later best-seller status. But for Hillerman, who has died aged 83 (Oct. 27, 2009), the greatest honour was being named in 1987 a special friend of the Dineh, this being the Navajo’s word for the people, or themselves.

The strength of his books lies in their sympathy with the culture they detail. Hillerman’s stories often feature conflicts between the American legal system and traditional Navajo definitions of crimes or criminals. Concepts of tribal harmony often transcend the law, and the Navajo are often far more sensitive to moral weakness than the white society that surrounds them. “I’d like people to see the strength and dignity of a culture I admire,” said Hillerman, who was especially concerned in his later books with the “negative value” Navajo culture places on greed, or acquiring more of anything than you need.

He grew up during the Depression on a small farm in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma. He was sent to the nearest school, which happened to be a mission school primarily for Potawatomi Indian girls. After a year at university, he enlisted in the US army and took part in the D-day landings. He won both the silver and bronze stars for valour, and a Purple Heart after he was wounded severely by a mine.

He graduated from Oklahoma University in 1948 and married Marie Unzner, with whom he had one child and adopted five more. A journalist reporting Hillerman’s wartime experiences had recommended, after reading his letters home, that he consider writing. He took up this advice and worked as a reporter and editor on newspapers in Borger, Texas and Lawton, Oklahoma, before becoming United Press International’s political reporter in Oklahoma City.

He moved as UPI bureau chief to Santa Fe, and then, for nearly 10 years, edited that city’s leading paper, the New Mexican. But he explained later that “you needed to take a vow of poverty to be a journalist in the old days”, and in 1963 he enrolled at the University of New Mexico, working as an assistant to the president while studying for his MA in English. He then taught journalism at the university for more than 20 years.

In his spare time he wrote his first novel, The Blessing Way (1970), featuring Lt Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo tribal police. As well as his own experience, Hillerman drew on the pre-war Australian novels of Arthur Upfield, featuring the half-Aboriginal detective Napoleon Bonaparte. Nevertheless, his first literary agent advised him to “get rid of the Indian stuff”. His second novel, The Fly on the Wall (1971), was set in the seamy world of state politics. It is a much-underrated book, not least by Hillerman himself. He returned to Leaphorn with Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), which received the best novel Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America.

People of Darkness (1980) introduced Sgt Jim Chee, younger than