Tony Hillerman, A Life.

James McGrath Morris

University of Oklahoma Press

October 14th, 2021

Tony Hillerman A Life by James McGrath Morris gives readers a full insight into the author’s backstory. Between 1970 and 2006 he published 37 books, eighteen of which were mysteries involving the Navajos. 

“My motivation comes from thinking his achievement as a writer is under appreciated. I wanted to bring attention to how he fundamentally altered the mystery genre.  In the 1970s there were primarily white male detective crime solvers. He introduced Navajo detectives and in doing so unraveled the Navajo culture to the world.  I am also a fan, someone who read his books for thirty years.” 

His best-selling novels featured detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Leaphorn is older, combines the Navajo and Anglo methods, and is sophisticated. Chee is younger, more inquisitive, more curious, tried to understand the Anglo’s culture, but was immersed in the Navajo’s traditions. Joe used the western investigative techniques, while Chee used the Navajo beliefs of spirits. 

“I would describe Joe Leaphorn an accidental creation in the first novel, The Blessing Way. There was a white protagonist and Joe was introduced as a secondary character.  He is more bicultural than Chee. The other detective, Chee, is younger and more traditional than Leaphorn.  He came about in the fourth novel, struggling to balance the white world and the Navajo world.”

A quote in the book sums up why Hillerman chose to write novels.  “I thought this is an important quote, ‘For years he longed to leave what he called the ‘hard rock of journalism,’ and ‘move into the plastic of fiction’. To him journalism was limited. Fiction had the power to get to a deeper truth because it was not bound by accuracy.  He could improve the character’s language and have them say things he wanted.  Fiction has plasticity, a flexibility to pursue the bigger story. Although there were those who felt he appropriated the Navajo culture many felt he revitalized their spiritual and cultural traditions.”

Morris also delves into Hillerman’s life. Readers see what impacted the author from living in Oklahoma during the depression, his near-death experience in WWII causing PTSD, his journalism years in New Mexico, his marriage, and his connection with Navajo spirituality.  In addition, Morris explains how Leaphorn was created and the circumstances that led to the addition of Jim Chee as his partner.



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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.