In early March I was searching the shelves at a Barnes&Noble for a mystery for Mary’s birthday, when I spotted a treasure – one of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police mysteries neither of us had read. The Shape Shifter (2006) is the last of the 18 titles in this series that won Hillerman (1925-2008) numerous awards both as a mystery writer and as a friend of Native Americans. I will review The Shape Shifter when I finish, but starting it today reminded me of other stories that represent pure reading pleasure to me. Books that carry me into another world. Books that I read because I like to hang out with the characters, almost regardless of what they are doing.
I realized this morning as I sat down to coffee with Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, and officers Jim Chee and his new wife, Bernadette Manuelito, that the greatest pleasures I’ve had in reading, bar none, are books in which I just want to be with the characters, almost regardless of whether they’re solving mysteries or buying groceries. In addition to Hillerman’s tribal officers, other examples come to mind:
- Frodo Baggins and friends.
- Holmes and Watson.
- Amelia Peabody and family in Elizabeth Peters’ Egyptian mysteries.
- Rat and Mole and Toad in Wind in the Willows.
- The sometimes annoying but always brilliant, Hercule Poirot.
- Lirael and the disreputable dog in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy.
- Hamish Macbeth, the irrepressible Scottish detective in M.C. Beaton’s series.
I have also spent way too much money and time reading second rate fantasy series in the often vain hope of recapturing the Tolkien experience.
It’s important to realize that in stressing the importance of characters, I am not referring to the contemporary buzzword, “character driven.” That has little or nothing to do with my list of comfort-food books, since with the possible exception of Wind in the Willows, these titles all belong in the “plot driven” category; most mysteries begin, not with the detective’s quirks but with the discovery of a corpse, and problem of the Ring of Power was independent of Frodo.
As I said – these fictional people are friends, whether they are solving mysteries, dodging orcs, or sitting down to second breakfast. This is a real clue for me, something to remember as I juggle plot elements. Even though that is critical work, I find myself anxious to get back to the characters, both the heroine and the villain. That, more than anything else, tells me I am heading in the right direction.
Many years ago, a guy with whom I worked introduced me to Tony Hillerman. I went on a tear and read all I could find. I haven’t read one in many years, but this post reminded me how very much I liked the characters as well. One of the gifts of teaching was I got to read some favorite books over and over because I would always read them along with my students. There’s nothing I’d rather do than sit down to breakfast with Atticus Finch, Jem, and Scout while Calpurnia would serve up some flannel cakes. Perhaps Miss Maudie Atkinson or Dill would drop by and Calpurnia would set another plate. Yes, Morgan, I know what you mean.
For a while, Hillerman would come out with a new book every year in the Spring, just about when it got warm enough to go swimming. The phrase, “beach read” is often used with a bit of condescension, but not from me! One of those great, “life is good” events. Also, three movies were made from his books for PBS Mystery which were fun. They cast Wes Studi as Leaphorn, which was great.