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RIP Tony Hillerman October 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Today’s MSN headlines let our friend Ben know that one of Silence Dogood’s and my favorite authors, Tony Hillerman, just died. Tony Hillerman is the author of a series of mysteries set in the Four Corners region of the Southwest and starring fictional Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.

Generally speaking, Silence and I aren’t fans of mysteries, unless you’re talking about Sherlock Holmes, where the famous detective is typically solving puzzles, not gruesome crimes. (A blue diamond in a Christmas goose and a fake beggar leap to mind.) Holmes’s mysteries focused on detection. Most of today’s mystery writers feel their novels have to focus on murder, and the more murders and the more horrific they are, the better. For some reason, Silence and I fail to find this entertaining. Even when the novels are wonderfully written and meticulously researched, as in the case of P.D. James’s work, we tend to admire them rather than enjoying them.

Tony Hillerman’s mysteries proved to be an exception. Silence and I collect Pueblo pottery, and we have a small collection of Navajo textiles, Zuni fetishes, Navajo sandpaintings, and Hopi kachinas (now more properly katsinas) as well. We both grew up avidly reading about Native American culture and saving our allowance for the occasional arrowhead, and our friend Ben is also a bigtime fan of cacti, reptiles, rocks, dinosaurs, and other hallmarks of the Southwest.

So when we first stumbled on Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, we were hooked. We loved his detailed descriptions of the Southwest. (We have been to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, as well as to the ruins at Bandolier, and we have many books on the Southwest with gorgeous photos, some of them written by Hillerman himself, but even without them, we think we’d have been able to see the landscape through Hillerman’s descriptions.) We loved his reverent depictions of Navajo and Hopi beliefs. We loved his colorful characters, especially Jim Chee. The murders seemed almost incidental to the sweep of the Southwest and the Navajo and Hopi cultures.

We read each new Hillerman novel avidly as it came out, and waited impatiently for the next volume in the series. We watched the movie version of The Dark Wind and the excellent PBS versions of Coyote Waits, A Thief of Time, and Skinwalkers. Too bad PBS didn’t film them all! Silence and I applauded the casting of Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn and Adam Beach as Jim Chee, and we loved the strong supporting cast, including two of our favorite actors, the deathless Graham Greene as Navajo preacher Slick Nakai and Gary Farmer as Chee and Leaphorn’s boss back at Navajo Tribal Police headquarters, Captain Largo. The PBS series escaped the dreadful mistake Hillerman himself made when he killed off his best creation, Leaphorn’s wife, Emma, early in the series. (What was he thinking?!!) Fortunately, Emma remains alive and feisty but big-hearted as ever in the PBS series. We enthusiastically urge you to rent these episodes via Netflix, buy them used through Amazon, or try to find them at your local video store. You’ll be glad you did!

If you haven’t yet discovered Tony Hillerman’s novels and would like to try them, we suggest that you look carefully at the copyrights and choose books from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s. Because the life stories of Chee and Leaphorn are told sequentially, it’s nice to start at the beginning (Hillerman’s first Navajo novel is The Blessing Way) and move forward.

We think the last few novels were a mistake and should be avoided. As Hillerman got older and had more health issues, his plotting and research became sloppier. We found his final novel to be virtually unreadable. Tony Hillerman was a born storyteller, and we enthusiastically think he should have continued writing until he died. (We certainly hope we do!) But writing and publishing are two different matters, and those last few books should never have seen the light of print, especially when his publisher apparently couldn’t be bothered to have an editor, copyeditor, or even proofreader look over the novels before they went to press, full of typos, inaccuracies, and contradictions. Shame!!!

Silence and I would have loved to have caught up with Tony Hillerman back when he was at the peak of his abilities. We’d have loved to ask him to go back rather than always pressing forward, to write about Leaphorn and Emma’s earlier adventures, about Jim Chee’s upbringing and what brought such a traditional boy to become a policeman. Perhaps, as in the case of Sherlock Holmes himself, other writers will take up the challenge to keep Chee and Leaphorn alive now that Hillerman is gone. We hope so. And Robert Redford, if you’re reading this, how about finishing the PBS series you produced? It was great!

Thank you, Tony Hillerman, for giving our friend Ben, Silence, and countless other readers and viewers so many hours of pleasure. We hope you’re up there now, enjoying the Four Corners section of Heaven!

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