Tony Hillerman, 83; Penned Navajo Series

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tony Hillerman, 83, a New Mexico writer who brought the police procedural into new territory with compelling novels set on the Navajo Reservation, died Oct. 26 at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque of pulmonary failure.

The starkly beautiful reservation land, with its arching skies, desolate open spaces and its almost unearthly quiet, is an integral part of Mr. Hillerman's best-selling detective fiction. Thematically vital to his work is the cultural discord between modern society and the proud, impoverished Navajo, who call themselves the Dineh.

The Dineh world of nature and magic, of medicine ceremonies and the centuries-old weight of tradition has long been under assault by the dominant Anglo culture. Mr. Hillerman's books reflect the conflict through his best-known protagonists, detectives with the Navajo Tribal Police named Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee.

Leaphorn, who is introduced in Mr. Hillerman's first novel, "The Blessing Way" (1970), is older and slightly more cynical than his younger counterpart. He understands the Navajo way but does not share his people's traditional belief in a rich and mysterious spirit world.

The university-educated Chee, who first appears in "People of Darkness" (1980), more idealistic than Leaphorn, is studying to become a hathaali, a Navajo shaman.

"Skinwalkers" (1986) was the first novel that brought Leaphorn and Chee together, and provided Mr. Hillerman his commercial breakthrough. The mystery involves three reservation murders linked only by bone fragments, and the two detectives combine their insights and approaches as they grapple with drugs and money originating in the Anglo world as well as the shape-changing witches the Navajo call skinwalkers.

Mr. Hillerman wrote 18 books in the Navajo series, including "Talking God" (1989), which brings Chee and Leaphorn to the District to battle terrorists, a mad hit man and maddening official bureaucracy.

Mr. Hillerman wrote more than 30 books, including a memoir and volumes on the history and beauty of the Southwest, but it was his Navajo books that earned him such literary honors as the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. His books have been translated into eight languages, including Japanese and Danish.

A movie version of "The Dark Wind" (1991), starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Fred Ward, was a box-office bomb, although a PBS series adapting three of Mr. Hillerman's novels and starring Wes Studi and Adam Beach was a critical success.

Anthony Grove Hillerman, a second-generation German farm boy, was born May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Okla., a small Catholic community.

Most of his friends and classmates were Native American, from the Pottawatomie and Seminole tribes. He attended school at St. Mary's Academy, a boarding school for girls near a Benedictine mission to the Pottawatomies. Area farm boys also attended the school.

"There were town boys and country boys," he told The Washington Post in 1987. "And the Potts and me were country boys, see? We wore bib overalls and carried our lunch in a sack. And the town boys wore low-cut shoes and belt pants, and knew how to shoot pool, and knew how telephones worked. And to this day, I still feel much more comfortable around rednecks than I do around Yalies. . . . And Navajos are definitely country boys."

He briefly attended college in Oklahoma before enlisting in the Army. He landed at Normandy on D-Day with the 103rd Infantry Division and was severely wounded in battle at Alsace, France. His decorations included the Silver Star.

His wartime letters to his mother were printed in the Daily Oklahoman and encouraged his writing career. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma and wrote advertising copy for Purina Pig Chow before working as a newspaper reporter and editor in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

He returned to school in 1963 -- despite having six children to support -- and received his master's degree in English literature from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque three years later. He also worked in the university president's office and taught journalism until 1987.

"What I basically wanted to do was write 'War and Peace' in Pottawatomie County," he told The Post. "I'd never written anything longer than 800 words, so I thought I'd write a mystery. It has a shape, and it's shorter . . . and since I didn't have any idea whether I could plot a mystery, I thought I would kind of sell it by putting it in an exotic setting. And since to me the Navajo reservation and the Navajo culture are fascinating, it therefore must be fascinating to everybody else."

His first agent advised him to take out "all that Indian stuff." He declined.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Marie Unzner Hillerman of Albuquerque; and six children.

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