The Hillerman Tradition Continues

Years ago I gave a friend a copy of one of Tony Hillerman’s books. When I visited him six months later I noticed he had a whole shelf loaded with Hillerman mysteries. They’re like peanuts: people just keep consuming them.

Tony Hillerman
Tony Hillerman

Most of Hillerman’s mysteries recount the adventures of Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer and later Sergeant Jim Chee. Leaphorn is an older man who loses his beloved wife Emma during the course of the books, and in the later works he’s retired and just kind of nosing around — finding trouble every time!

Jim Chee, in the first books, is training as a hataali, a healer who performs curing ceremonies involving chants and sand paintings intended to bring a person back into harmony. He tries to balance this training with his career as a police officer, but eventually gives it up to focus on law enforcement.

A lot of the early books treat Chee’s love life, which is always coming to grief. At first there’s Mary Landon from Wisconsin, a schoolteacher at the elementary school in Crown Point. They’re in love, but she wants him to leave the reservation, which he can never do, and she really can’t stay there.

Then there’s Janet Pete, a public defender who used to work at a hotshot law firm in Washington. She’s gorgeous and smart and they love each other, but she wants Chee to join the FBI so they can go be a power couple in Washington, and that’s not going to happen either.

In Hillerman’s last books he introduces Officer Bernadette Manuelito, a rookie on the Navaho Tribal Police force. Sergeant Chee is her supervisor, and she feels he’s giving her a hard time, and there are lots of complications, but eventually they find love and get married.

I’ve noticed with older mystery authors like Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, and Tony Hillerman, the focus is only partially on whodunnit. There’s also the question of when those two nice young people are going to get together.

Anne Hillerman

When Tony Hillerman died in 2008, I felt sorry that I wouldn’t be able to read about Chee and Leaphorn and Manuelito any more, but lo! His daughter Anne has decided to continue the Hillerman tradition, and she has two excellent books: The Spider Woman’s Daughter and The Rock with Wings.

And don’t worry about her coddling the characters too much. At the beginning of her first book, Joe Leaphorn gets shot in the head. That’s not really a spoiler because it happens right at the beginning.

And Chee and Manuelito’s life together, though happy, is no bed of roses. We have a promising source of problems, with Bernie taking care of her elderly mom and her problem child sister, who has taken up drinking and running around.

So I’m looking forward to lots more fine stories in the great Hillerman tradition.