October 27, 2008

Tony Hillerman dies

Mystery writer Hillerman dies at 83Together, they struggled daily to bridge the cultural divide between the dominant Anglo society and the impoverished people who call themselves the Dineh.

Hillerman's commercial breakthrough was "Skinwalkers," published in 1987--the first time he put both characters and their divergent world views in the same book. It sold 430,000 hardcover copies, paving the way for "A Thief of Time," which made several best seller lists. In all, he wrote 18 books in the Navajo series, the most recent titled "The Shape Shifter."

Each is characterized by an unadorned writing style, intricate plotting, memorable characterization and vivid descriptions of Indian rituals and of the vast plateau of the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.

The most acclaimed of them, including "Talking God" and "The Coyote Waits," are subtle explorations of human nature and the conflict between cultural assimilation and the pull of the old ways.

"I want Americans to stop thinking of Navajos as primitive persons, to understand that they are sophisticated and complicated," Hillerman once said.

Occasionally, he was accused of exploiting his knowledge of Navajo culture for personal gain, but in 1987, the Navajo Tribal Council honored him with its Special Friend of the Dineh award. He took greater pride in that, he often said, than in the many awards bestowed by his peers, including the Golden Spur Award from Western Writers of America and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, which elected him its president.

Hollywood was less kind to Hillerman. Its adaptation of his 1981 novel, "Dark Wind," with Lou Diamond Phillips and Fred Ward regrettably cast as Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, was a bomb.
Comment:  Phillips and Ward aren't Indians, but I thought they did a good job. I think Dark Wind is the best of the Hillerman movies--better than the three PBS movies directed by Chris Eyre. To me Wes Studi and Adam Beach didn't look anything like my conception of Leaphorn and Chee despite their being Indians. Phillips and Ward were closer to what I envisioned.

As for the best of Hillerman's books, I vote for Hunting Badger (above). Rob's rating: 8.5 of 10.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Books.

1 comment:

dmarks said...

Sad to read of this. I think he is the only mystery writer I have read.

I remember that night in the Navajo reservation. I remember two things: seeing the immediate after effect of a murder, and a huge gift shop that had typical crafts and things you might find at an Indian-theme shop, and an extensive, well-placed selection of Tony Hillerman novels.