Posted by: kshayes513 | January 1, 2009

Reading: Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman: Sacred Clowns, People of Darkness, A Thief of Time, The Dark Wind

Tidying up a double-stacked bookcase this week turned up a clutch of Hillerman novels that I hadn’t yet read, so I’ve been spending my reading time this week in Navajo country.

Tony Hillerman wrote mysteries featuring two officers in the Navajo Tribal Police, and won about every major award a mystery writer can win. He passed away last October, to the great regret of his many fans, including me.

What does Hillerman have to do with worldbuilding? He’s one of the writers I was thinking about in my last post, when I talked about reading that puts you into an alien way of thinking. He was a white man, but he represented the Navajo so well that the Navajo nation presented him with their Special Friend Award. To follow Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee on an investigation, is to get an inside look at the native people of the Four Corners.

By coincidence, the novels I’ve just read are mainly Jim Chee novels, which suits me fine, because Chee has chosen to live as a Navajo, not a white man, which is (at least in the Hillerman novels) a choice that all Navajo have to make, especially if they are considering leaving the reservation. We’re so used to procedurals these days, thanks to the glut of TV crime shows, that we assume there’s a certain way this kind of work is done.  But its not Jim Chee’s way. It’s endlessly fascinating to see how Chee investigates, especially when his investigations are parallel to a state or federal investigation being carried out by (naturally) white men. His approach to looking at a crime scene, and especially his ways of interrogating Navajo witnesses, tell me more about what it means to be a Navajo, than any number of scholarly works.

I learned just now, when I looked up Hillerman’s Wikipedia entry, that he was inspired by another writer of tribal mysteries,  Australian Arthur Upfield, whose hero was a half-Aboriginal detective, and whose novels showcased much of the lifeways of Australia’s native people. I read some of Upfield’s novels many years ago. Time to go look them up again.


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