For many years during the nineties and the early part of the last decade, Tony Hillerman’s mysteries were a part of my annual celebration of spring. In April or May his newest title would hit the bookstores – just in time for the beach or the pool at the gym. “Beach read” is often synonymous with “guilty pleasure,” but I never feel guilty about enjoying good stories.
Hillerman is best known for the 18 mysteries set in northern Arizona and New Mexico and featuring Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, and later in the series, officer Bernadette Manuelito, who eventually marries Chee. This series won Hillerman the 1974 Edgar Award, the 1991 Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, as well as the Navajo Tribe’s “Special Friend of the Dineh Award.” Dineh is usually translated as “the People.”
The stories emphasize the Navajo ideal of living in harmony with the world and bring in themes from Navajo cosmology. Many of Hillerman’s criminals are rumored to be witches – the worst thing you can become. Leaphorn, the first detective in the series is skeptical, but…
Leaphorn didn’t believe in witchcraft. He believed in evil, firmly believed in it, saw it practiced all around him in its various forms-greed, ambition, malice-and a variety of others. But he didn’t believe in supernatural witches. Or did he? (The Shape Shifter, 2006).
Chee, the younger officer, tries to walk in the worlds of both a modern policeman and a tribal shaman. More than once, at the end of a case, Chee undergoes a traditional ritual to restore his balance and harmony.
Details of Navajo culture pervade all of Hillerman’s books and lend the restrained pacing of a people who think it rude to interrupt someone else who is talking. In real time, the cops may have to drive a hundred miles to interview a suspect, but Hillerman keeps things moving by letting his detectives constantly mull over the compounding mysteries, and notice tiny details in the vein of Sherlock Holmes.
That said, the book I recently found, The Shape Shifter, the only one the Navajo mysteries I had not read read, is not where I would suggest a new reader start. In places, it is a bit too slow, and it assumes we are familiar with the characters.
Skinwalkers (1990) would make a better first time Hillerman read. This is the book where Leaphorn and Chee first team up, and the story is filled with supernatural menace. Skinwalkers are especially nasty witches who change shape to harm others, like European werewolves. Skinwalkers is one of three Hillerman titles featured on the PBS series, Mystery, with Wes Studi brilliantly cast as Leaphorn.
This is old-time detective fiction at its best, with the unique slant of a unique people, living in a remote and beautiful part of the country. I only wish there were more of Hillerman’s books I hadn’t read.