Authors: Tony Hillerman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Blessing Way, 1970

The Fly on the Wall, 1971

Dance Hall of the Dead, 1973

Listening Woman, 1978

People of Darkness, 1980

The Dark Wind, 1982

The Ghostway, 1984

Skinwalkers, 1986

A Thief of Time, 1988

Talking God, 1989

Coyote Waits, 1990

Sacred Clowns, 1993

Finding Moon, 1995

The Fallen Man, 1997

The First Eagle, 1998

Hunting Badger, 1999

The Wailing Wind, 2002

The Sinister Pig, 2003


The Great Taos Bank Robbery, and Other Indian Country Affairs, 1973 (also known as The Great Taos Bank Robbery, and Other True Stories of the Southwest)

New Mexico, 1974 (photographs by David Muench)

Rio Grande, 1975

Indian Country: America’s Sacred Land, 1987 (photographs by Bela Kalman)

Hillerman Country: A Journey Through the Southwest with Tony Hillerman, 1991 (photographs by Barney Hillerman)

Talking Mysteries: A Conversation with Tony Hillerman, 1991

New Mexico, Rio Grande, and Other Essays, 1992 (photographs by David Muench and Robert Reynolds)

Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir, 2001

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Boy Who Made Dragonfly: A Zuni Myth, 1972

Buster Mesquite’s Cowboy Band, 2001

Edited Texts:

The Spell of New Mexico, 1976

The Best of the West: An Anthology of Classic Writing from the American West, 1991

The Mysterious West, 1994 (stories)

The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories, 1996 (with Rosemary Herbert)

The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, 2000


Tony Hillerman, who could be called the creator of the anthropological mystery, is widely regarded as one of the best mystery writers in the world. His unique mysteries, most of which were set on the Navajo Reservation in the Southwest, contain masterful interactions of setting, plot, and characterization.{$I[AN]9810001827}{$I[A]Hillerman, Tony}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Hillerman, Tony}{$I[tim]1925;Hillerman, Tony}

Tony Hillerman

(Courtesy, University of New Mexico)

On May 27, 1925, Anthony Grove Hillerman was born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, the son of Lucy Grove and August A. Hillerman, a storekeeper and farmer. Hillerman received his early education at St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic boarding school for Indian girls that accepted several non-Indian children from nearby farms. Thus, although not Indian himself, he numbered Potowatomis and Seminoles among his earliest friends. He graduated from Konawa High School in 1942 and enrolled at Oklahoma A&M College in the fall. After one semester, Hillerman returned to the farm. He joined the U.S. Army in 1943, receiving the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart. In 1945 Hillerman observed his first Navajo curing ceremony, the Enemy Way, which had a profound influence on him. Desiring to know more about the Navajos, he began to study their culture seriously.

Hillerman returned to college and graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in journalism in 1948. Between 1948 and 1962 he worked as a police reporter, political writer, and editor for newspapers and the United Press in Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In August, 1948, Hillerman married Marie Unzer; they had six children and remained married for sixty years until Hillerman’s death in 2008. Hillerman began his long association with the University of New Mexico by enrolling as a graduate student in 1963. He worked for the president of the university and joined the journalism faculty in 1966, ultimately becoming chairman of the department. He started to write fiction in the late 1960’s, and his first book, The Blessing Way, was published in 1970.

In The Blessing Way Hillerman introduced his readers to Joe Leaphorn, the protagonist who would be a central figure in many of his novels. Originally Leaphorn’s role was a minor one, but readers were fascinated with the character. Hillerman responded by making the tribal policeman the major character in Dance Hall of the Dead and Listening Woman. In these novels, and others that followed, Hillerman explored Navajo culture and its symbiotic relationship with the individual.

Hillerman created another central character, Jim Chee, also a Navajo tribal policeman, for his next three novels: People of Darkness, The Dark Wind, and The Ghostway. At first glance, Leaphorn and Chee seem very similar. Both possess degrees in anthropology, the former from the University of Arizona, and the latter from the University of New Mexico. In addition, Leaphorn worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Chee applied to and was accepted by the FBI. Chee chose not to attend and remained on the reservation. Their differences, however, create a unique and complex relationship that Hillerman explores by bringing them together in five subsequent novels: Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Talking God, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns.

The older Leaphorn is the quintessential methodical detective who has a rational and calculating approach to solving crime. He is a firm believer in Navajo ways, especially in the Navajo concept of hozho, or cosmic harmony; anything that disrupts this harmony, such as crime, is an aberration and must be corrected. Leaphorn is more cynical than Chee regarding tribal taboos such as witchcraft. Chee, on the other hand, is intuitive and less pragmatic in his approach to solving crime. He is more of a Navajo traditionalist and is studying to become a Singer, a shaman who conducts healing rituals. Leaphorn and Chee are faced with numerous challenges as Navajos working with non-Navajos, and both work hard to maintain professional and personal harmony in their lives.

Hillerman incorporated anthropological material into his novels and made it germane to the plot. Thus Leaphorn and Chee employ their thorough understanding of Navajo traditions and culture and their knowledge of the landscape to solve mysteries. In other novels–such as The Boy Who Made Dragonfly, The Fly on the Wall, and Finding Moon–Hillerman abandoned Leaphorn and Chee but maintained his interest in the interaction of setting, character, and plot. Hillerman’s interest in place and culture was also reflected in his nonfiction works, which were informative (some combine Hillerman’s text with the work of photographers) and focus on the Southwest and its contrasting cultures.

Hillerman’s books have been translated into several languages, including Japanese. He received such distinguished honors as the Edgar Award and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America, the Silver Spur Award, the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award, and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award. In 1997 he was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of fame, and his memoir, Seldom Disappointed, won an Anthony Award for Best Nonfiction/Critical Work. Indeed, Tony Hillerman was an extraordinary mystery writer who left his mark on the world of fiction.

BibliographyBrowne, Ray B. “The Ethnic Detective: Arthur W. Upfield, Tony Hillerman, and Beyond.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Discusses the place of Hillerman’s Navajo detectives and other ethnic detectives in modern crime fiction and how they have affected it.Coale, Samuel Chase. The Mystery of Mysteries: Cultural Differences and Designs. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 2000. A study of the mysteries of Amanda Cross, Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, and Walter Mosely, showing how these writers use the mystery genre to introduce the concerns of minorities into fiction.Crawford, Brad. “Tony Hillerman.” Writer’s Digest 80, no. 1 (January, 2000): 8.Erisman, Fred. Tony Hillerman. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1989. Highlights time, ethnicity, and crosscultural themes in Hillerman’s works.Freese, Peter. The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman. Essen, Germany: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1992.Greenberg, Martin, ed. The Tony Hillerman Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to His Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Provides an excellent and perceptive analysis of his writings and descriptions of his characters. This book was nominated for an Edgar in the Best Critical/Biographical Work category.HarperCollins. Tony Hillerman. http://www.harper This is the official Web site for Tony Hillerman, hosted and maintained by his publisher. Aside from the predictable features of a commercial site, a biography and interview make this a worthwhile resource.Herbert, Rosemary. The Fatal Art of Entertainment: Interviews with Mystery Writers. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Interview with Hillerman focuses on his life and how he came to write, including his relationship with the Navajo.Hieb, Louis A. Tony Hillerman, from “The Blessing Way” to “Talking God”: A Bibliography. Tucson, Ariz.: The Press of the Gigantic Hound, 1990. A guide to critical literature.Hillerman, Tony. Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Hillerman recollects his early life, including his service as an infantryman during World War II, his education, and his career as a journalist.Knepper, Paul, and Michael B. Puckett. “The Historicity of Tony Hillerman’s Indian Police.” Journal of the West 34, no. 1 (1995): 13-18. Surveys the history of the Indian tribal police and compares the reality to Hillerman’s fiction.Reilly, John M. Tony Hillerman: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. After chapters on Hillerman’s life and his place in the detective genre, Reilly covers the Leaphorn and Chee series book by book through Finding Moon.Sobol, John. Tony Hillerman: A Public Life. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994. A popular biography. Dated, but full of information and enjoyable to read.Templeton, Wayne. “Xojo and Homicide: The Postcolonial Murder Mysteries of Tony Hillerman.” In Multicultural Detective Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1998. In compiling a critical work on the role of ethnic culture in detective fiction, the novels of Tony Hillerman cannot be overlooked, though Hillerman does not himself belong to the culture about which he writes. This is a scholarly discussion.
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