29 October 2008

RIP: Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman
27 May 1925 - 26 Oct 2008

ZUI this article from the New York Times:
Tony Hillerman, a former newspaperman whose evocative mystery novels set among the Navajos of the Southwest took the American detective story in new directions and made him a best-selling author, died Sunday in Albuquerque, where he lived. He was 83.

The cause was pulmonary failure, his family said. A daughter, Anne Hillerman, said her father had survived two heart attacks and operations for prostate and bladder cancer, The Associated Press reported.

In the world of mystery fiction, Mr. Hillerman was that rare figure: a best-selling author who was adored by fans, admired by fellow authors and respected by critics. Though the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with an avowed purpose: to instill in his readers a respect for Native American culture.


Mr. Hillerman was not the first mystery writer to set a story on Indian land or to introduce a Native American detective to crime literature. (Manly Wade Wellman, for one, had done so.) But beginning with “The Blessing Way” in 1970, the 18 novels that Mr. Hillerman set on Southwest Indian reservations, featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, gave the traditional genre hero a new dimension.

Joe Leaphorn, grizzled and a bit cynical, has a logical mind and a passion for order that reflects his upbringing in the Navajo Way. His code of behavior is dictated by a belief in the harmonious patterns of life that link man to the natural world. But he is not a religious fundamentalist; he is a skeptic who holds a master’s degree in anthropology.

Jim Chee, younger and more idealistic than Leaphorn, seeks a more spiritual connection to Navajo tradition. Over several books he studies to become a hataalii, or singing medicine man. This ambition creates friction between the religious faith he professes and the secular rules of criminal justice he is sworn to uphold. Chee first appears in “People of Darkness” (1980), Mr. Hillerman’s fourth novel in the series.


Anthony Grove Hillerman was born on May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Okla., to August Alfred Hillerman, a farmer and shopkeeper, and his wife, Lucy Grove. The town was in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, and the family’s circumstances were so mean that Mr. Hillerman would later joke that “the Joads were the ones who had enough money to move to California.”


After attending Oklahoma A&M College, Mr. Hillerman enlisted in the Army in World War II. During two years of combat in Europe, he said, his company of 212 riflemen shrank to 8 as its members fought their way through France. In 1945, in a raid behind German lines, he stepped on a mine. His left leg was shattered, and he was severely burned. He never regained full vision in his left eye.

He returned from Europe in 1945 with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and enrolled at the University of Oklahoma, where he met and married Marie Unzner, a Phi Beta Kappa student in bacteriology, and took up journalism. He went on to find jobs as a crime reporter for The Borger News-Herald in the Texas Panhandle; city editor of The Morning Press-Constitution in Lawton, Okla.; a political reporter in Oklahoma City; bureau manager in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for United Press International; and executive editor of The Santa Fe New Mexican.

The Leaphorn and Chee novels are one of my favourite mystery series.

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