Tony Hillerman died at age 83 in an Albuquerque hospital this week, succumbing to pulmonary failure after surviving two heart attacks, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis – none of which stopped him from writing (his last novel was published in 2006). His mysteries portrayed the beauty and desolation of the Four Corners area and featured two of the most complex detectives in fiction: Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.
A highly decorated infantryman, after World War Two Hillerman became a journalist and professor at the University of New Mexico. In 1970 he introduced Joe Leaphorn in the novel “The Blessing Way.” Of his 30 books, 18 featured Leaphorn, Chee or both, and it was these novels that made him a bestselling author beloved by his fans. His themes were spiritual, but he was a master storyteller who used humor, history, archaeology and the clash of cultures to weave his well-crafted mysteries.
In 1987, the Navajo Tribal Council presented him with its Special Friend of the Dineh award, which he prized above his many other honors.
Here's an excerpt from his 1988 novel, "A Thief of Time," said to be his favorite.
Full darkness came late on this dry autumn Saturday. The sun was far below the western horizon but a layer of high, thin cirrus clouds still received the slanting light and reflected it, red now, down upon the ocean of sagebrush north of Nageezi Trading Post. It tinted the patched canvas of Slick Nakai's revival tent from faded tan to a doubtful rose and the complexion of Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn from dark brown to dark red.
From a lifetime of habit, Leaphorn had parked his pickup a little away from the cluster of vehicles at the tent and with its nose pointing outward, ready for whatever circumstances and duty might require of it. But Leaphorn was not on duty. He would never be on duty again. He was in the last two weeks of a thirty-day "terminal leave." When it ended, his application to retire from the Navajo Tribal Police would be automatically accepted. In fact he was already retired. He felt retired. He felt as if it were all far, far behind him. Faded in the distance. Another life in another world, nothing to do with the man now standing under this red October sunset...
Hillerman introduced many a belagaana (white person) to the world of the Navajo, and in his books one finds harmony. I hope he is walking in beauty.