Monday, October 27, 2008

The Last of Tony Hillerman

Celebrated New Mexico-based crime novelist Tony Hillerman passed away on Sunday afternoon. As the Associated Press reports:
Tony Hillerman, author of the acclaimed Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels and creator of two of the unlikeliest of literary heroes--Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee--died Sunday of pulmonary failure. He was 83.

Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, said her father’s health had been declining in the last couple years and that he was at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque when he died at about 3 p.m.
More details can be found here.

In her own remembrance of Hillerman’s fiction and influence, New York Times crime-fiction critic Marilyn Stasio recalls:
Mr. Hillerman’s evocative novels, which describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world, touched millions of readers, who made them best sellers. But although the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with a purpose, he often said, and that purpose was to instill in his readers a respect for Indian culture. The plots of his stories, while steeped in contemporary crime and its consequences, were invariably instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals for a soldier returned from a foreign war to incest taboos for a proper clan marriage.

“It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures,” Mr. Hillerman once told Publishers Weekly. “I think it’s important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways.”

Mr. Hillerman was not the first mystery writer to set a story on Indian land or to introduce a full-blooded Native American detective to crime literature. In 1946 the grand prize in the first short-story competition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine went to Manly Wade Wellman for the first of two stories he wrote with an Indian protagonist. But beginning with “The Blessing Way” in 1970 the 18 novels Mr. Hillerman set on Southwest Indian reservations featuring Lieut. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, brought a new dimension to the character of the traditional genre hero.
The Albuquerque Journal, meanwhile, offers somewhat more of a glimpse into the author’s life and lasting impact:
“He grew up humbly, and that’s always who he was,” his daughter Anne Hillerman said. “Despite all the honors and recognition he got, he always stayed the same guy.”

Tony Hillerman called New Mexico home for more than 50 years, but his roots go back to Sacred Heart, Okla., where he was born to a family of farmers in 1925.

He fought in World War II, receiving a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. After the war, a reporter read letters Hillerman had sent to his mother. She saw talent and told him to pursue journalism.

“He belongs to a generation that is about to disappear over the edge of history,” said a New York Times review about his memoirs, “Seldom Disappointed,” calling them “laced with humor and worldly wisdom.”

Hillerman could always tell a good story, his daughter said.

“He really loved a good conversation, and he was a good listener. He was a natural storyteller,” she said. “When my brothers and sisters were growing up, he would tell bedtime stories, and we would always be the heroes of the stories.”

After the war, Hillerman studied journalism at the University of Oklahoma and received his degree in 1948.

He worked at newspapers in Texas before moving to Santa Fe to work for the United Press International, a news-wire service. He later became the editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Hillerman moved to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico in the early 1960s.

“He was really an outstanding person. ... He was a real asset to the university and a great source of information. He was not only an outstanding writer but a great teacher and mentor,” said John Perovich, a former UNM president who worked with Hillerman when both were in the university’s administration.

Teaching, just like writing, was always his passion, Perovich said.

“I don’t know any journalism student that didn’t think the world of Tony,” he said. “And of course, he trained many of New Mexico’s newspaper people.”
More personal reflections on the life and times of Tony Hillerman can be found here, here, and here. Lists of Hillerman’s fiction and non-fiction books can be found here and here.

The writer’s death comes less than two weeks before The Hillerman Conference, scheduled to take place this year at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque, New Mexico, November 5-9.

(Contributions to this post from Linda L. Richards.)

READ MORE:Tony Hillerman Is Dead,” by Carolyn Kellogg (Los Angeles Times); “In Memorium: Tony Hillerman” (Prairie Sun Rising); “In Appreciation of Tony Hillerman,” by Marjorie Kehe (Christian Science Monitor); “Thanks for Everything, Tony,” by Kate Flora (Writers Plot); “Man of Enchantment,” by Mary Lynn Reed (The Lipstick Chronicles); “Mystery Novels, with a Southwestern Flair,” by Lynn Neary (National Public Radio); “A 1001 Midnights Review: Tony Hillerman--Dance Hall of the Dead,” by Marcia Muller (Mystery*File).

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