Navajo mysteries brought to life by author

By Don McAlavy: CNJ columnist

I saw in the Florida’s St. Petersburg Times on Monday that Tony Hillerman had died this last Sunday of pulmonary failure. He was 83.

I almost cried, as I had been reading his great books since 1971 and still have some of them now. Hillerman was born in Sacred Heat, Okla., and was a decorated World War II veteran.

His daughter, Anne Hillerman, said her father’s health had been declining in the past couple of years. He died at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque. He has kept tapping at his keyboard even as his eyes dimmed, his hearing faded and rheumatoid arthritis turned his hands into claws. He said in 2002 that he was getting old, “but I still have to write.”

His mystery novels about the Navajo Indians were set in the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona. There his main character was Joe Leaphorn, the legendary lieutenant and Jim Chee the legendary sergeant. One can’t rule out Capt. Largo, who ran the Navajo Tribal police headquarters in Gallup. The last book I read by Hillerman was in 2004 and titled “Skeleton Man.” Hillerman was New York Times best-selling author. I’ll sure miss Tony Hillerman.

His first book was in 1970, entitled “The Blessing Way,” I think. But the one I liked the best was his 1973 “The Great Taos Bank Robbery.”

It was published by the University of New Mexico Press. I think Hillerman published at least 37 books. I may have missed some.

Hillerman wrote several articles in different magazines, such as the New York Times Book Review in 1989, in The Writer in 1991, the Chicago Tribune in 1992, the Special Issue of Life magazine in 1993, the National Geographic Traveler in 1993, the Modern Maturity in 1995, and the Arizona Highways in 1996.

Hillerman is a former president of the Mystery Writers of America and has received its Edgar and Grand Master Awards. His other honors include the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for the best novel set in the West, and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award.

Most of the time Hillerman lived with his wife in Albuquerque.

I’ve always loved books about New Mexico, especially those written by Tony Hillerman.

Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: dmcalavy@telescopelab.com