Tony Hillerman (1925-2008)

I was saddened this morning to learn that mystery novelist — and fellow New Mexican and University of New Mexico Lobo — Tony Hillerman died of pulmonary failure this past Sunday at age 83.

I was only slightly acquainted with Tony Hillerman — I began attending the University of New Mexico, and working at UNM’s newspaper, the Daily Lobo, the year after he all but officially stepped away from the journalism department to dedicate himself full-time to writing. But I had the pleasure of talking with him several times and, briefly, I attended a writing class he taught at the UNM Honors Department. When I first became acquainted with him, he had just published Skinwalkers and was already hard at work on A Thief of Time.

At that time, Hillerman had been writing for more than 15 years — his first book was 1970’s The Blessing Way, and he had won the Edgar for his 1973 book Dance Hall of the Dead — but he was still more of an underground hit, respected by writers as a hard working but unduly unappreciated master of the craft. That all changed with Skinwalkers, his first true commercial success. From that point forward, Hillerman was playing with the big boys.

Not that you would have known it. Hillerman was an incredibly humble guy. When students like me — or even faculty members — fawned all over him or gushed about his books, the rumpled Hillerman was genuinely embarassed by the fuss. He would flush and sort of roll his eyes in this you must be joking way.

He’s considered one of the innovators of what we now call the “tribal mystery genre,” and his detectives, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, have given readers such an even-handed, fascinating, and sympathetic look at Navajo culture that Hillerman was given the “Special Friend of the Dineh” Award in 1987 for his portrayal of the “dignity of traditional Navajo culture.” He also made the State of New Mexico itself a character in his books — and if you visit the state to seek out any of the landscapes against which Hillerman sets his stories, you’ll find they look and feel exactly as he described them.

A genuine loss to New Mexico and to literature. My thoughts go out to his family and friends. Thanks for sharing him.

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