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Tony Hillerman was one of the leading lights of American mystery writers. Most of his books were set in New Mexico among the Navahos. As a child I lived in New Mexico and got to know and love the Navaho people. Hillerman started his series with three books featuring Joe Leaphorn who in many ways was a more traditional policeman. His next three novels featured Jim Chee who was part policeman and part shaman. After the first six books Hillerman went on to write the rest of the series with both characters. I’ll cover the Jim Chee and the combined books in later diaries.

This is a brief biography of Tony Hillerman who passed away in October of 2008 from Harper-Collins his publisher:

Tony Hillerman (1925–2008), an Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident since 1963, was the author of 29 books, including the popular 17-mystery series featuring Navajo police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, two non-series novels, two children’s books, and nonfiction works. He had received every major honor for mystery fiction; awards ranging from the Navajo Tribal Council's commendation to France 's esteemed Grand prix de litterature policiere. Western Writers of America honored him with the Wister Award for Lifetime achievement in 2008. He served as president of the prestigious Mystery Writers of America, and was honored with that group’s Edgar Award and as one of mystery fiction’s Grand Masters. In 2001, his memoir, Seldom Disappointed, won both the Anthony and Agatha Awards for best nonfiction.

The first three Navaho mysteries featured Navaho policeman Joe Leaphorn. Leaphorn is the Spock of mysteries. He wants everything to be logical. He gets upset when things don’t fall into place. Part of this comes from the Navaho tradition of “walking in beauty.” The Navaho tradition is to walk in harmony with nature and your fellow man. In many ways this belief mirrors the Taoist belief of yin-yang. Leaphorn is an excellent tracker. There is a bit of Sherlock Holmes in the character.

The Blessing Way was the first Joe Leaphorn novel. Luis Horseman was on the run after knifing someone in a fight. Leaphorn is trying to find him. He is hampered by the outbreak of Navaho Wolf or Skinwalkers sightings. These are people who have strayed from the Navaho way and turn to evil. They are believed to be able to turn themselves into animals. Leaphorn’s friend Bergen McKee has been psychologically damaged by a marriage gone wrong. He finally decides that he will go back and try and finish his research on Navaho sorcery. A series of grisly murders and a ruthless opponent plague both Leaphorn and McKee.  The book is a good introduction to the Navaho way of life and beliefs. In many ways Joe Leaphorn reminds me of Sherlock Holmes. He is a strong character but not one that you can warm up to as a person.  He comes across as rather cold and aloof.

Dance Hall of the Dead is a fascinating combination of Navaho and Zuni beliefs. George Bowlegs disappears and his friend Cecil Cata is missing. Cata had been practicing for his part in a Zuni religious ceremony. George wants to leave his Navaho traditions behind and become a member of the Zuni tribe and religion. When Cata is found murdered Bowlegs becomes the prime suspect. The case is further complicated by the F.B.I. searching for drugs, archeological digs, a hippie commune, and a further death. This book is one of the best of the series.

Listening Woman is very much a political thriller. An old man and a young girl are murdered. A blind woman named Margaret Cigaret had been trying to discover what was making the old man ill and prescribing the correct Navaho ceremonies that would bring him back into harmony. While trying to solve the murder Leaphorn again crosses paths with the F.B.I. this time in regards to an unsolved robbery of a Wells Fargo truck, a disappearing helicopter, and militants calling themselves The Buffalo Society. An attempt to run him down with a car leads Leaphorn to try and trace the attempted killer. The plot is complicated but Hillerman keeps you going at an almost breakneck speed.

Tony Hillerman was one of the best mystery writers around in my opinion. He had great respect for the people he wrote about. The books are a combination of good mysteries and a lesson in the Native American beliefs especially the Navahos. In future diaries I’ll introduce the Jim Chee novels and the novels starring both characters.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Mon Apr 01, 2013 at 04:58 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA.

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