Today I learned of the passing of Tony Hillerman. Hillerman is best known for his mystery novels set in the American Southwest. Featuring Navajo tribal policemen Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee, the novels paint vivid descriptions of tribal life in a starkly beautiful landscape.
I first learned of Hillerman from another Tony, my cousin and Laura’s colleague Tony Arrington. The year was 1991 and we were preparing to move to Tucson, Arizona for a year’s study. Tony had suggested Hillerman’s novels as a way of introduction to our new home. The first book I read was “A Thief of Time,” and it remains my favorite of the Hillerman books. We own most of the novels, including a signed first edition of “The Sinister Pig.”
Many writers who use a specific cast of characters often get into a rut. I think of Martha Grimes, with her Richard Jury mysteries. It often becomes a contrivence to get all of the familiar characters and situations together in every novel, as if that’s what the readers expect. That was never the case with Hillerman. The incidental characters were integral parts of the story, but it never seemed contrived.
I wondered how much longer Hillerman could continue the series. The “Legendary Lieutenant” Leaphorn had finally retired from the force, and seemed to be aging along with Hillerman himself. The last novel, “The Shape Shifter,” has Leaphorn becoming more forgetful.
Hillerman died Sunday in Phoenix at the age of 83.