A Note on the Novels of Tony Hillerman
By Martin Kich
The continuing popularity of Tony Hillerman's two closely related series of novels, featuring Jimmy Chee and Joe Leaphorn, has led almost inevitably to imitations. An ever-growing number of other novelists have set their mysteries in the Far West and have built their stories around detectives either who are themselves Native Americans or who have regular dealings with Native American communities.
Hillerman was not the first novelist to be intrigued by the possibilities in combining elements of the Western and the mystery genres of popular fiction. But the three or four writers whose efforts in the combined genres preceded his own gave up after a novel or two when their experiments attracted more curiosity from reviewers than paying readers.
Part of Hillerman's success had to do with timing. The urban-centered political activism of the 1960's and 1970's found a counterpart on the remote reservations. Native American activists organized against Federal policies that had reduced the long-impoverished reservations to the absolutely poorest and most desperate counties in the nation. These activists reasserted the rights of Native Americans to more direct control over their remaining lands, and in the process, they re-energized the efforts of Native Americans to salvage a renewed sense of identity from the historical wreckage of their cultural heritage.
In the larger society, the pervasive political skepticism, increased environmental concerns, and well-publicized counterculture experiments with communal living, with the use of hallucinogenic drugs, and with alternative religions, all led to a new, if not always clearly focused, curiosity about Native American traditions and a sympathy for Native American causes.
Hillerman tapped into this interest, and, in the long run, the popularity of his novels has to some extent helped to sustain it. He has not only set his novels in Navajo country and created engaging central characters who are Native Americans, but he also made aspects of Native American society, culture, religion, and history central to his stories. Details and concerns which might have been merely local color or a sub-plot in other mystery novels have become the focal images and themes in his novels.
Yet, despite the originality of Hillerman's approach, his stylistic limitations as a novelist have left much ground open for novelists who might follow his direction.
Unlike some novelists whose success has led to a certain staleness in their work, Hillerman has improved as a stylist almost with each new novel. Although his early novels contained some very basic lapses in style--such as mixed metaphors, obvious redundancies, cliches, and awkwardly inflated diction--which might have made Strunk and White cringe, in his more recent work he has exhibited the precision of the practiced craftsmen. Still, the structures of his stories are very conventional, and he has experimented very little with point of view. So much more could be done narratively with the mythical and mystical elements of the Native American (and simply Western) subjects which he treats.
In addition, despite Hillerman's considerable sensitivity to Native American attitudes and concerns, his novels are somewhat monotonal. In particular, they are conspicuously lacking in any sort of humor. Chee and Leaphorn might not be "wooden Indians" in the sense that they are nothing more than conventional stereotypes, but they are pretty stiff characters on a more personal level.
Surely there are many possibilities between this sort of determined seriousness and the satirical excesses and profane absurdities in another outsider's view of reservation life, Dan Cushman's Stay Away, Joe (a novel of the late-1950's which was adapted--that is, mutilated--as an Elvis Presley film). Indeed, Native American writers such as James Welch and Sherman Alexie have demonstrated that Native Americans can be drawn as literary characters as complex and sometimes ridiculous in their ambitions and torments as, say, John Cheever's suburban sophisticates.