Mystery on the Rez

coyote-waitsToo many years have passed for me to remember when I began reading Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels about the Navajo Tribal Police or even how many of his books I’ve read. All I know is that I was captivated with the first one, as well as the second and third — and however many more I inhaled.

Eventually, I took a break so I could explore other writers. Finally, while on vacation earlier this month I picked up “Coyote Waits,” the 10th in his series of 18 books featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. After breezing through that paperback in a matter of days, I was reminded of the many reasons why I enjoyed his work so much.

I found his novels highly accessible, characterized by a clean, crisp, uncluttered writing style. I loved the sense of place he created, with detailed descriptions of the geography and geology of the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona. I admired his storytelling, the way he took you through so many twists and turns as he unraveled one crime mystery after another through the common-sense investigations by Leaphorn and Chee.

Most of all, I appreciated his reverence for Southwest culture generally and the Navajo people in particular.

A native of Oklahoma, Hillerman was a decorated World War II veteran, a former newspaperman and a journalism professor at the University of New Mexico. He was prolific, producing several non-fiction and children’s books in addition to the Leaphorn-Chee series.

Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman

When he died at age 83 in 2008, The New York Times obituary said of him: “In the world of mystery fiction, Mr. Hillerman was that rare figure: a best-selling author who was adored by fans, admired by fellow authors and respected by critics. Though the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with an avowed purpose: to instill in his readers a respect for Native American culture.”

Reading “Coyote Waits” gave me the feeling of reuniting with an old friend on the sprawling Navajo reservation. Diving into the novel, it was easy to get caught up again in the imagery of the Southwest and the steady pacing of each chapter. I could see how he constructed the scaffolding of the story, how he brought major and minor characters in and out of the narrative, how he cranked up the tension as events built toward a resolution of the mystery.

In other words, I was fully aware of being in the hands of a master storyteller. And it felt good.

Hillerman’s daughter, Anne,  has taken up the torch with the publication of a 2013 novel featuring Officer Bernadette Manuelito, the wife of Sgt. Chee, as protagonist. I’ll probably get around to it, but it’ll be on the back burner for a while as there are a few other books I’d like to get to first.

For now, I’d like to appreciate the simple pleasure of a Tony Hillerman novel. He made it look so easy.

Photograph: Harper-Collins

Read the Albuquerque Journal’s obituary

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