TONY HILLERMAN (b. 1925)
Tony Hillerman's procedurals featuring the Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee represent all the strengths of the American regional mystery novel. Not only does Hillerman open a vista of the southwestern landscape, with which he is intimately acquainted, but his work offers an understanding of Native American culture.
Hillerman was born in the dust-bowl village of Sacred Heart Oklahoma, where he enjoyed a supportive family life and attended a boarding school for Potawatomie Indian girls. By growing up with Potawatomie and Seminole friends and neighbours, he learned, he says, that "racial difference exists only in the bigot's imagination but that cultural differences are fascinating."
Hillerman's youthful hopes of becoming a chemical engineer were already dimmed by bad grades in math and chemistry courses when he was drafted to fight in World War II. In the infantry, he twice attained the rank of private first class and won the Silver Star and the Bronze Star with cluster. He also suffered a wound that left him with only one good eye and a need for a job outside a chemistry lab.
While he was home from Europe on a convalescent furlough, two crucial incidents occurred. A reporter who had read his letters to his family told him that he should be a writer. And while driving a truck to the Navajo Reservation, he witnessed a curing ceremony that later became the center of «The Blessing Way,» his first novel introducing Leaphorn.
Before he wrote that novel, Hillerman studied journalism at the University of Oklahoma, persuaded Marie Unzne. to marry him, and spent seventeen years as a journalist and another five years as a journalism professor at the University of New Mexico. After writing his second novel, which features a political reporter as its sleuth, Hillerman returned to Leaphorn, sending him to the nearby Zuni Reservation to help find a Navajo boy suspected of murder. This book, «The Dance Hall of the Dead, «won the 'best novel' Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America.
The series of novels that followed feature either Leaphom or Jim Chee, a younger, more traditional Navajo police officer. In the most recent five books, the two work in uneasy tandem, solving crimes through their knowledge of the culture of their people. Hillerman's books have won awards from the Navajos, the Centre for the American Indian, the American Anthropological Association, and the Department of the Interior. His colleagues in the Mystery Writers of America named him a Grand Master.
With its background of witchcraft and atmosphere of an impending desert storm, «Chee's Witch» demonstrates how Hillerman makes tribal culture and the desert landscape germane to his plots. In his tale, the unravelling of a contemporary crime is impossible without an intimate knowledge of timeless ritual.