Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tony Hillerman, 1925-2008

I was saddened to learn that Tony Hillerman passed away on Sunday due to heart problems. I won't have anything to write about him that is more personal than this tribute by author Deanne Stillman, or as well written as the New York Times obituary by mystery fiction critic and essayist Marilyn Stasio. But if there has never been time for you become familiarized with this great author in the past, I encourage you to make time now, and experience the truly unique voice of an American great.

Everyone has seen a Tony Hillerman book. You may not have associated the name or the face, but the covers are consistently evocative and stand out among the others on the bestseller lists. The one that I seem to always see popping up is Skeleton Man, his second-to-last novel, which was released in 2004. No matter what used book store I'm in, or which overstock bin I'm standing near, there seems to be a copy there. And if not Skeleton Man, than surely The Shape Shifter or Hunting Badger.

I heard one of my friends call him Mr. Southwest yesterday, and I guess that's as good a summation as any. He has been, and always will be, connected with the "Four Corners" region where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet. His mystery novels focused on Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, two Navajo Tribal Policemen, and the cases they were involved in, which often talked about the clashes of differing ideals, whether it was between Native American tribes, the tribes and the white man, the past and the present, or the criminal and the law. His writing style represented the area as well. It was sparse, not particularly populated, but also beautiful in its openness. His sense of place is often mentioned as a strength, and I can't argue with that, but it was always the characters that brought me back.

Never let it be said that I let an opportunity to mention film go by. Hillerman's books have been adapted to film or TV 4 times, probably best remembered on PBS, with the great Adam Beach (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Flags of our Fathers) in the Jim Chee role and Wes Studi (Dances With Wolves, Last of the Mohicans) as Joe Leaphorn. There were three of these films: Skinwalkers (2002), Coyote Waits (2003) and A Thief of Time (2004). The Dark Wind was a 1991 theatrical adaptation starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Jim Chee and directed by documentarian Errol Morris.

Throughout his career, he received the Edgar award for Dance Hall of the Dead, the Spur Award for Skinwalkers, the Nero award for Coyote Waits, the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master award, the Agatha and Anthony awards for Seldom Disappointed, the Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement award and the Western Writers of America's Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement. Not to mention the Navajo Tribe's Special Friends of the Dinee Award for his contributions to expanding understanding and appreciation for the Navajo culture.

So, look, don't just take my word for it. Go pick up a Tony Hillerman book. It will be well worth your time.

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