Dear Tony Hillerman,

Coyote Waits

When my own life feels especially chaotic, I reach for one of your Joe Leaphorn mysteries in the hope of restoring a sense of order to my spinning soul. There is something stabilizing about your “legendary” Lieutenant of the Navajo Tribal Police. Perhaps it’s Leaphorn’s sensible, step-by-step approach to nabbing even the most elusive and nasty killer. It could also be his long and happy marriage. Or maybe it’s his resigned attitude towards the NTP’s bureaucracy, his years of experience, or his reasoned way of working with his younger subordinate, Jim Chee. All I can tell you is that when my own life caroms out of control, Joe Leaphorn is my go-to man. A sexy bad boy he’s not. But Leaphorn uncovers and catches killers without my having to worry about him drinking and smoking himself to death like I do when I read about the PIs in noir crime stories.

The lieutenant may not make my pulse accelerate, but your stories about him do. That’s because Leaphorn and Chee are sleuthing in the stunning terrain of the

Black Mesa, NM

Southwest, a vast haunted land full of secrets. Both officers spend hours each day and sometimes each night too in separate cars driving from a crime scene to the Tribal police station or the courthouse or into the desert to interview a suspect or witness or follow up on a clue.  I first set foot in New Mexico in the early Nineties when my husband and I went to a wedding in Albuquerque. Gaping out our car window, I experienced déjà vu. I’d already explored those Anasazi ruins, the Rio Grande, the mountains, mesas and miles of road in your books. So that day in our rented Chevrolet I was riding shotgun with Leaphorn, keeping an eye out for the skinwalkers, shape changers, and ghosts that the Diné believe still haunt the area. I almost forgot the wedding and we came close to arriving late.

Navajo Hogan

Part of my ongoing fascination with your mysteries comes from how you infuse them with traditional tribal beliefs and customs and how those often conflict and/or contrast with the ways of white people. How you use this tension between insiders and outsiders and between traditionalists and modernists makes the familiar mystery format crackle with new vitality and was very much on my mind when I

Navajo Healing Way Sand Painting

began writing The Bones and the Book. So when readers of early drafts told me, “It’s a good story, but it’s too Jewish,” I took solace in remembering how your agent told you your first novel, The Blessing Way, would be a best seller if you’d only “get rid of the Indian stuff.” In the work of a lesser writer that “Indian stuff” might be arcane and off-putting, but in your novels it’s integral to the story and the characters, so it’s both gripping and accessible. I kept your example in mind as I revised.

There’s at least one more thing I really enjoy about your books. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are mentor and sidekick, boss and subordinate, Holmes and Watson.

Holmes and Watson

But those prototypical two are doomed to forever replay their roles of genius and stooge. Not so with Leaphorn and Chee. Their responses to each other run the gamut—rivalry, respect, resentment—and vary day by day, year by year, case by case. Leaphorn and Chee gradually and realistically learn to appreciate and exploit one another’s strengths to forge a satisfying and effective partnership that continues to evolve even after, in Coyote Waits, Leaphorn retires. You knew about male bonding before it became a TV and movie cliché.

So when I write mysteries, yours are still among the models I use. I too want to create believable characters who forge recognizable relationships with one another in a setting rich in cultural conundrums that fuel conflict and challenge my detective. And in The Bel Barrett Mysteries as well as later in The Bones and the Book, I’ve dreamed up amateur sleuths who are, at heart, neither sirens nor shrews, but nice, Jewish girls grown up.

Thank you again for your inspiring stories.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

8 Comments

Filed under mystery

8 responses to “Dear Tony Hillerman,

  1. Jane – I love the way you zero in on the relationship between Leaphorn and Chee as dynamic and changing – and I totally agree with your comments on how Hillerman uses the “tension between insiders and outsiders and between traditionalists and modernists” to add vitality to the mystery format. As usual your blog gets my grey cells moving. Thanks!

  2. Dear Jane,
    My Dad would have loved your essay. I can see him smiling at your story about how the southwest seemed familiar because of his descriptions. I know he would have appreciated your assessment of the complicated releationship between his two protagonists. Thank you for this beautiful tribute.

  3. What a beautiful post — full of contrasts and perseverance. One reason why I enjoy reading your letters so much, Jane, is that it makes me realize things I enjoy in reading too. This line, “stabilizing… sensible, step-by-step approach” that you used to describe the hero — it’s perfect. It’s why I read mysteries too. It does calm me down, immensely, to read. Thanks for putting words to my thoughts. :)

    • The idea that mysteries can be solved by ordinary folks is so appealing in this crazy world we live in where complexity and chaos rule and crime often pays. Like you, Melissa, I find mysteries a necessary refuge sometimes. Except when they’re really, really scary . . . .

  4. robert christensen

    Hey Jane – like others who have commented, I think this is a beautiful tribute to one of my favorite writers. I feel in love with the southwest before ever having gone there, just from his descriptions – his evocation of it’s natural and spiritual beauty – and of a different way of life that is lived and felt through the characters he created.
    That your post resonated with his daughter as well is a tribute to you both.
    bc

    • Glad you share my appreciation of Hillerman and Hillerman country, Bob. You could take some stunning photos there, I bet. Your special camera work would do it justice. I’d love to see it though your lens.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s