March 7, 2011

Tony Hillerman's Skeleton Man

Mystery fans and critics agree: Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee mysteries are some of the finest examples of detective novels today. This set of 18 novels began in 1970 with the publication of The Blessed Way, and was the first mystery series to feature Native American detectives. Hillerman was not Native American but went to a native boarding school and became friends with people from the Seminole and Potowatomie tribes. “I’m no expert on Navajos,” he has claimed. “I’m an interested layman. But I know a lot of Navajos. And the spin-off is that you get acquainted with their neighbors, the Hopis primarily and the Pueblo people” (Hamm 2000, 32). The Navajo people have found his writing so convincing that they honoured him with the Special Friend of the Dineh Award.

Apart from his mystery novels, Hillerman has also written a children’s novel and several nonfiction works about the American southwest. He has won a number of prestigious awards, including the Edgar Allen Poe, Grand Master, Agatha, and Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. Hillerman was raised in a family that valued storytelling. He practiced journalism for 17 years before becoming a professor of journalism at the University of New Mexico. His compact writing style and journalistic eye for telling detail is evident in all his writing. Hillerman credited his career in journalism with influencing the type of novel he wrote:
Journalism, I think, more than any other profession, puts you right in the middle of the so-called real world. You’re there when the unions are having their internal fights, you’re there for the murder trial, you’re there at the legislature. It puts you right at the pressure point where things are happening. (Hamm 2000, 28)
The job, he adds, “puts you where you’re seeing people under stress. . . You talk to the guy who’s going into the gas chamber a minute after midnight” (Ross and Silet 1989, 131-32).

One of the strongest appeals of Skeleton Man – the penultimate novel in the Leaphorn/Cree series – is the character of the two detective protagonists. Joe Leaphorn, the seasoned pragmatist, and Jim Chee, the young idealist, are perfect foils to one another. If Chee functions as a mediator between natives and whites, Jim Chee faces the demands of both, caught in the crossroads between two cultures. Faith, family, community, and culture are important values and central themes in the novel.

Hillerman has stated, “I’ve always liked to talk, and I like to tell stories. I think of myself as a yarn-spinner, a story-teller” (Hamm 2000, 31). Skeleton Man is one of his finest yarns. It is the story of a search for stolen diamonds, gems originally discovered in the Grand Canyon after a plane crash 50 years earlier. This novel is part adventure story, part myth, and part mystery story as characters make the dangerous descent into the Grand Canyon to solve the mystery behind the diamonds.

Hillerman is renowned not only for his sensitive portrayal of the challenges and conflicts of various tribal groups, but also for his memorable depiction of the American southwest. He captures the essence of its beauty, depicting what Stasio calls “a spectacular landscape of towering cliffs and soaring skies.” The series is set in the Four Corners area of the southwest, at the intersection of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Skeleton Man, like the other novels in the series, is filled with intersections, meeting points symbolized by the Four Corners landscape. The Grand Canyon becomes the gathering place of numerous characters, each person on a quest for something different. The separate strands of the plot coalesce in this central meeting point. Various cultures are brought together here – the native and non-native, and various tribes with separate beliefs – each one searching for something of value.

Although conflicts among various tribes, between natives and whites, and within individuals themselves dominate the novel, it is the willingness of characters to search for common ground and arrive at mutual understanding that remains in our minds long after finishing the novel. Hillerman juxtaposes the values of modern society with those of traditional natives, providing insight from the pastoral Navajo perspective. Their commitment to “hozro” or harmony reminds us what we often forget in our fast-paced lives.

As Stephen Knight concludes, “Hillerman’s novels combine capably developed mysteries with the context of magnificent settings and a complex and subtle native culture” (2004, 191).

Hamm, Ron. “Ron Hamm Interview with Tony Hillerman for Clues.” Clues 21, no. 2 (2000): 27-35.

Hillerman, Tony. Skeleton Man. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Ross, Dale H. and Charles L. P. Silet. “Interview with Tony Hillerman.” Clues 10, no. 2 (1989): 119-35.