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Tony Hillerman has died

October 27, 2008 |  9:33 am


Tony Hillerman, the 83-year-old mystery novelist who used the Southwest as a setting and whose two best-remembered characters were Navajo police officers, has died.

Hillerman won the 2004 Los Angeles Times Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement. It was just one of his many honors, including Edgar and Grand Master Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Navajo Tribal Council's Special Friend of the Dineh award, and an Agatha Award for his 2001 memoir, "Seldom Disappointed."

Hillerman, who was not Native American, was brought up in rural Oklahoma and went, as a boy, to a Pottawatomie Indian school. In a 2002 interview, he told PBS

When I decided I wanted to be a novelist, I had been a newspaperman for years. I didn't know whether I could develop a plot; I didn't know if I could develop a character. I knew I could describe. I thought, I'll set it on a Navajo reservation so I'll have a good background. If they don't like the story, they can look at the state setting, you know? That's how I got started. The more I knew about [the Navajo], the better I liked them.

The following year, the magazine The Rake asked him what he'd like readers to take away from his work:

Above all I would like them to be aware that the cultures of the people I like to write about, the Navajos and Hopis and so forth, are extremely complicated and extremely interesting — and in the case of the Navajos especially, are extremely valuable. You can learn a heck of a lot from Hopi and Navajo ways of life. For example, the negative value they put on greed, of having more than you need. In their mythology, that's how you identify a witch, the ultimate of evil. They have more than one kind of what we call a witch, they don't use that word. And the fellow who's got money and stuff, and kinfolks who are hungry, it's an almost certain sign the guy's evil. We've sort of left that behind us. We think the homeless person is probably a crook, or dangerous.

Greed was a theme for him then, as he talked about his 16th novel featuring Navajo detectives Leaphorn and Chee, "The Sinister Pig."

I think it was Enron and all these major, important companies going bankrupt and screwing their employees out of their retirement and their perks and everything while the CEOs sail off to their summer homes in the Antibes or whatever. That inspired me to get rough on 'em. Apparently nobody else is.

Hillerman thought his 20 years as a journalist served him well.

...you really had to sort of take a vow of poverty to be a journalist in the old days. ... I really think working at a newspaper as a reporter has two huge advantages for writers. One, you're writing every day. You learn how to use the language, you learn how to get a paragraph to make sense if you're doing it every day. And also it puts you where the action is, where you're seeing the guy sitting in the defendant's box sweating out the jury. You're at the scene of the crime, you're at the scene of the train wreck, you're dealing with people that are under tension, and I just think you can get a whole head full of memories of people and things. I wonder sometimes how normal people come up with their good books.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: AP