Sunday, 2 November 2008

Tony Hillerman Passes On

Novelist Tony Hillerman passed on October 26 at the age of 83.

Tony Hillerman was born on May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma. Growing up during the Dust Bowl, his family had very little money much of the time. His home was on territorial lands of the Potawatomi Tribe, where he attended St. Mary’s Academy and later high school there. He attended Oklahoma A&M College before enlisting in the United States Army during World War II. By the end of the war he had a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Following World War II he attended the University of Oklahoma where he studied journalism. Following graduation he would work as a crime reporter for The Borger News-Herald in Texas, city editor of The Morning Press-Constitution in Lawton, Oklahoma, a political reporter in Oklahoma City, a United Press International bureau manager in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and executive editor of The Santa Fe New Mexican.

After seventeen years in the newspaper business, Hillerman shifted gears and enrolled at the University of New Mexico. He received a master's degree in journalism and went on to teach journalism there. He eventually became chairman of the journalism department at the University of New Mexico. After witnessing a a Navajo Enemy Way ceremony for a soldier there, Hillerman moved to Crownpoint, New Mexico. The ceremony would also become the basis of his first novel, The Blessing Way (published in 1970), which introduced Navajo Tribal Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn. Leaphorn was a realist who, though well acquainted with Navajo customs, was well versed in Anglo-American logic and deductive reasoning. In 1980, in the novel People of Darkness, Hillerman introduced the character of Officer Jim Chee. Unlike Lt. Leaphorn, Officer Chee was well acquainted with Navajo tradition and even training to become a healer. Younger than Leaphorn, he tends to be impatient and a bit of a hot head at times.

Hillerman would team the two characters up in his novel Skinwalkers. Teaming up the sceptical Leaphorn and the more supernaturally inclined Chee proved to be jut the right formula for a hit. Skinwalkers would prove to be Hillerman's best selling novel up to that time and his breakthrough novel. Leaphorn would remain a team for the rest of their novels. Hillerman would see his novels adapted to other media. His novel The Dark Wind would be made into a motion picture, released in 1991. Made for the small screen would be adaptations of Skinwalkers (2002), Coyote Waits (2003), and A Thief of Time (2004).

Hillerman was one of the most talented mystery writers of our time. Although not the first novelist to write about a Native American detective (others, such as Manly Wade Wellman, had featured them in their works), he was perhaps the writer who informed his books with Native culture more than any other. All of the Leaphorn and Chee books contain a good deal of information on Navajo tradition, including rituals. In fact, beginning with Skinwalkers, many of the novels centre on Leaphorn and Chee's differing views on Navajo religion. That Hillerman included so much of Navajo culture in his books gave them a depth that many mystery novels lack. Of course, Hillerman's mysteries were also intriguing and well written, setting them above most other mystery novels written today. He won't soon be forgotten.

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