Tony Hillerman

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Tony Hillerman
Tony Hillerman.jpg
Born(1925-05-27)May 27, 1925
Sacred Heart, Oklahoma
DiedOctober 26, 2008(2008-10-26) (aged 83)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
OccupationNovelist, Journalist, Educator
Spouse(s)Marie Unzner Hillerman
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Tony Hillerman
Tony Hillerman.jpg
Born(1925-05-27)May 27, 1925
Sacred Heart, Oklahoma
DiedOctober 26, 2008(2008-10-26) (aged 83)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
OccupationNovelist, Journalist, Educator
Spouse(s)Marie Unzner Hillerman

Tony Hillerman (May 27, 1925 – October 26, 2008)[1][2] was an award-winning American author of detective novels and non-fiction works best known for his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels. Several of his works have been adapted as big-screen and television movies.


Anthony Grove Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma to August Alfred Hillerman, a farmer and shopkeeper, and his wife, Lucy Grove. He grew up on the territorial lands of the Potawatomie, attending elementary and high school with Potawatomie children. He was a decorated combat veteran of World War II, having served as a mortarman in the 103rd Infantry Division. He earned the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart. He attended the University of Oklahoma after the war, meeting Marie Unzner, a student in microbiology. They married, had one child Anne, and adopted five more children, Dan, Tony Jr., Steve, Monica (Atwell) and Janet (Grado).[2]

From 1948–1962, he worked as a journalist, then moved his family to Albuquerque where he earned a master's degree from the University of New Mexico in 1966. It was during his time as a writer for the Borger News Herald in Borger, Texas that he became acquainted with the Sheriff of Hutchinson County, the man upon whom he would patterns the main character in his Joe Leaphorn novels. He taught journalism from 1966 to 1987 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and also began writing novels. He lived there with his wife Marie until his death in 2008. At the time of his death, they had been married 60 years and had ten grandchildren.[2][3]

Hillerman, a consistently bestselling author, was ranked as New Mexico's 22nd wealthiest man in 1996.[4]

Hillerman wrote 18 books in his Navajo series. He wrote more than 30 books total, among them a memoir and books about the Southwest, its beauty and its history.

His literary honors were awarded for his Navajo books. He was also awarded the Parris Award (named in honor of Parris Afton Bonds) by Southwest Writer's Workshop for his outstanding service to other writers. Hillerman books have been translated into eight languages, among them Danish and Japanese.[3]

Hillerman's writing is noted for the cultural details he provides about his subjects: Hopi, Zuni, European-American, federal agents, and especially Navajo Tribal Police. His works in nonfiction and in fiction reflect his appreciation of the natural wonders of the American Southwest and his appreciation of its people, particularly the Navajo.

His mystery novels are set in the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona, sometimes reaching into Colorado and Utah and beyond, sometimes to Washington, DC, Los Angeles and other areas. The protagonists are Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo tribal police. Lt. Leaphorn was introduced in Hillerman's first novel, The Blessing Way (1970). The second book in the series, Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), won a 1974 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel. In 1991, Hillerman received the MWA's Grand Master Award. Hillerman has also received the Nero Award (for Coyote Waits) and the Navajo Tribe's Special Friends of the Dineh Award.[5]

Hillerman repeatedly acknowledged his debt to an earlier series of mystery novels written by the British-born Australian author Arthur W. Upfield and set among tribal aborigines in remote desert regions of tropical and subtropical Australia. The Upfield novels began to be published in 1928 and featured a half-European, half-aboriginal Australian hero, Detective-inspector Napoleon (Bony) Bonaparte. Bony worked with deep understanding of tribal traditions. The character was based on the achievements of an aborigine known as Tracker Leon, whom Upfield had met during his years in the Australian bush.

Hillerman discussed his debt to Upfield in many interviews and in his introduction to the posthumous 1984 reprint of Upfield's A Royal Abduction. In the introduction, he described the appeal of the descriptions in Upfield's crime novels. It was descriptions both of the harsh outback areas and of "the people who somehow survived upon them" that lured him. "When my own Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police unravels a mystery because he understands the ways of his people, when he reads the signs in the sandy bottom of a reservation arroyo, he is walking in the tracks Bony made 50 years ago."

Hillerman died on October 26, 2008, of pulmonary failure in Albuquerque at the age of 83.[2]

Legacy and honors[edit]

The Tony Hillerman Library in Albuquerque, named in his honor.

Hillerman is considered one of New Mexico's foremost novelists.[6] In Albuquerque, the Tony Hillerman Library was dedicated in 2008,[7] and the Tony Hillerman Middle School (part of Volcano Vista High School) opened in 2009.[8]

Common themes of Leaphorn and Chee books[edit]

A number of themes and elements are common to many of Hillerman's Navajo mysteries. Many of them focus on the different attitudes that Leaphorn and Chee take toward Navajo. Leaphorn is somewhat skeptical of tradition, although he takes seriously reports of witchcraft. He does not believe in witches, but following a murder-suicide early in his career, in which a man killed three people whom he believed to be skinwalkers, Leaphorn realizes that belief in witches can lead to problems.

Chee takes a more traditional Navajo worldview, believing in the power of traditional singers and other rituals; however, he has come to take a more figurative or symbolic view of chindi, Navajo ghosts. Chee likewise studies to be a yataalii, roughly speaking, a shaman, whenever time allows. Leaphorn does respect tradition. "While Leaphorn was no longer truly a traditional," said Hillerman in Hunting Badger (1999, page 44), "he still treasured the old ways of his people."

In many novels, Leaphorn and/or Chee investigate reports of witchcraft or other supernatural events, often while at the same time investigating seemingly unrelated crimes of a more ordinary sort. In many cases the two are related, the supernatural events being staged as a way to cover up the other crimes. Many novels also explore the interaction of traditional Navajo culture with the bilagáana, or white man; Chee, especially, sees this assimilation as destroying Navajo culture and making it difficult for many to fit into either world. In particular, several characters are "Relocation Navajos," raised in Los Angeles after a government program of the 1930s relocated them.

The Navajo idea of hózhǫ́ is frequently referred to. This term refers to beauty, harmony, and the interconnectedness of the natural world. The crime in a Hillerman novel is a synecdoche for that which destroys hozho. In addition to "white" versus "Navajo" culture, with a preference for the latter, Hillerman often explores differences in social status in white society. For example, many wealthy antagonists feel that the status brought by their money allows them to do certain things that would be considered immoral. Some of the lower-class antagonists feel jealousy and a desire to be seen as equals. Sometimes Hillerman's liberal political attitudes become explicit, as in this emphasis on social class and his negative presentation of the FBI in many novels.

Following the Navajo tradition of giving names based on personal attributes, Hillerman often refers to unnamed characters by descriptive nicknames. For example, a man wearing gold-rimmed glasses is called "Goldrims" until his name is identified later in the book; a boy wearing a Superman sweatshirt, a boy who is the grandson of a man under investigation, is called "Supergrandson." A murder victim is referred to as "Pointed Shoes" even after the body is identified.


Leaphorn and Chee books[edit]

Continuation of Leaphorn & Chee Series[edit]

In 2013, Hillerman's daughter, Anne, published the first new novel since 2006 featuring Hillerman's Navajo Police characters, Spider Woman's Daughter (ISBN 0062270486). The novel's protagonist is Jim Chee's wife, Officer Bernadette Manuelito.

Three-in-one volumes[edit]

Other novels[edit]

Other books by Hillerman (memoirs, non-fiction, anthologies)[edit]

About Hillerman, non-fiction, by others[edit]

Books of photos[edit]


Hillerman has both won and been nominated for numerous awards for his work.

His first nomination came in 1972, with his novel The Fly on the Wall being nominated for an Edgar Award in the "Best Mystery Novel" category; his first award win came two years later, when his novel Dance Hall of the Dead won this same award.[9] He was again nominated for the "Best Mystery Novel" Edgar Award in 1979 for Listening Woman and lastly in 1989 for A Thief of Time.[9] Hillerman's non-fictional work Talking Mysteries was nominated in 1992 for the Edgar Award in the "Best Critical or Biographical" category.[10]

Hillerman has also been successful at the annual Anthony Awards. His novel Skinwalkers won the 1988 Anthony Award for "Best Novel" and this was followed the following year when A Thief of Time was nominated for the 1989 Anthony Award in the same category.[11] His next nomination was for his Talking Mysteries non-fictional work which was nominated at the 1992 Anthony Awards.[11] His novel Sacred Clowns received a "Best Novel" nomination at the 1994 Anthony Awards; and the following year his short-story collection The Mysterious West won the 1995 Anthony Award in the "Best Anthology / Short Story Collection" category.[11] His last win came at the 2002 Anthony Awards at which he won the "Best Non-fiction / Critical Work" award for his memoir Seldom Disappointed.[11]

At the Macavity Awards Hillerman also proved somewhat successful. A Thief of Time won the "Best Novel" award in 1989 and Talking Mysteries won the "Best Critical / Biographical" award in 1992.[12] Seldom Disappointed also received a nomination in the "Best Biographical / Critical Mystery Work" category in 2002.[12]



  1. ^ "KOB Television News". Retrieved March 7, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d Stasio, Marilyn (October 27, 2008). "Tony Hillerman, Novelist, Dies at 83". The New York Times. Retrieved October 29, 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Holley, Joe. "Tony Hillerman, 83; Penned Navajo Series". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 25, 2010. 
  4. ^ Barrett, W.P. "The 25 Richest People in New Mexico", Crossroads, October 1996.
  5. ^ "Tony Hillerman: About Hillerman/Bibliography". n.d. Retrieved February 19, 2007. 
  6. ^ Roberts, Susan A.; Roberts, Calvin A. (1998). A History of New Mexico. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. p. 383. ISBN 0-8263-1792-8. 
  7. ^ "Tony Hillerman Library". Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Library System. 2014. Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  8. ^ Piper, Ann (2014). Education in Albuquerque. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing. p. 112. ISBN 9781467131032. 
  9. ^ a b "Best Mystery Novel Edgar Award Winners and Nominees - Complete Lists". Retrieved March 7, 2012. 
  10. ^ "Best Critical or Biographical Edgar Award Winners and Nominees - Complete Lists". Retrieved March 7, 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Bouchercon World Mystery Convention : Anthony Awards Nominees". October 2, 2003. Retrieved March 7, 2012. 
  12. ^ a b "Mystery Readers International's Macavity Awards". Retrieved March 7, 2012. 
  13. ^ The Dark Wind at the Internet Movie Database
  14. ^ a b c "Amercian Mystery! Specials". WGBH. 2003. Retrieved 16 April 2014. 
  15. ^ Skinwalkers (2002) at the Internet Movie Database
  16. ^ Coyote Waits at the Internet Movie Database
  17. ^ A Thief of Time at the Internet Movie Database

External links[edit]