Yá’át’ééh! Fans of the Hillerman books will immediately recognize the three names in the title as Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, and Bernadette Manuelito (a relatively new addition who doesn’t yet have her own Wiki page). All three are (fictional) police officers working for the (real) Navajo Tribal Police in the American southwest.
I have to call them just “the Hillerman books” now, because after father Tony Hillerman died, daughter Anne Hillerman took up the series and has so far contributed five very worthy stories of her own. (Her vision of the series puts Bernie Manuelito front and center and thus adds fresh air to the 18 books her father wrote.)
I’m a fan of detective novels, especially murder mystery detective novels, and these are without question my second favorite mystery books of all time.
I’ve been meaning to do a post about these pretty much since I started my blog. But when something is so near and dear, one wants to “do it right” so I’ve put off trying for fear of inadequacy.
That applies also to some favorite films (like L.A. Story) that I’ve never gotten around to doing a post about because I so want to do them justice. I’ve mentioned these beloved favorites many times over the years, but never did them the honor of giving them their own post.
But recently, thanks to the Cloud Library, I’ve read the Anne Hillerman additions, and the series has been on my mind. I thought it was high time I highlighted it, especially when some folks might be looking for something new to read.
Part of my attraction for the series involves a love of the American Southwest desert.I got to know it during the time I lived in Los Angeles. It has a stark beauty all its own. (And I’m fine with dry heat. Rather like it, actually.)
((In fact, I discovered I’m something of a desert rat when I lived in Las Vegas one summer for a job. I considered moving to Arizona or, more likely, New Mexico when I retired. I’m not one for the humidity of Florida.))
Both Tony and Anne fill these books with rich descriptions of the land. The Navajo have great love and respect for the land — historically they lived off it (many still do), and, being desert, it isn’t easy land to live on.
But the beauty of the surrounding mountains, the many earth colors of the desert, and all that sky and weather, permeate and uplift these stories. All three of the main characters love living where they do and love doing what they do. That love of land and work informs these stories.
The series initially revolves around two Navajo police officers: Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee.
Leaphorn is older, wiser — the ace detective younger officers go to for help. Ultimately he’ll retire and become a private detective and resource for other officers. Leaphorn has a modern sensibility about Navajo spirituality. That is, he doesn’t believe in skinwalkers (witches and wizards) and other supernatural elements of the culture.
(The Navajo are, generally speaking, very uncomfortable with death and they fear a dead person’s spirit (chindi) which they see as typically evil. They will not speak the name of a dead person for fear of attracting its attention. This can cause issues with police work.)
Chee is young and impetuous. And far more prone to Navajo spirituality (and superstition). In fact, Chee is studying to become a Medicine man (Hatalii) in addition to being a cop. Leaphorn becomes something of a mentor to Chee.
Bernadette Manuelito is a young cop introduced later in the series (and made central in Anne Hillerman’s stories). She becomes Jim Chee’s third love interest (after his first two don’t work out) and — third time pays for all — his wife.
One thing that took me a while to notice is that the characters spend a lot of time in their vehicles driving somewhere.
If you look at the territory, this makes perfect sense — it’s vast. So, of course, any police officer serving that area necessarily spends a lot of time driving. We’re talking about covering parts of four states here (large parts of two of them).
As an aside, the territory covers the Four Corners — the only place in the USA where four states touch. At the Four Corners Monument, you can (could?) place one limb in each state. (Somewhere I have a picture of me doing that.)
The genius of the driving is that it’s the perfect place for an author to have a character ruminate about the case or life. It’s also the perfect place for them to reflect on the beauty of the landscape. And if you have two characters in the vehicle, it’s the perfect spot for exposition.
Because what else do you do in a car but think, look around, and chat?
Both Tony and Anne leverage that to great effect. The time driving also helps communicate something of the distances involved as well as the sense of beauty, space, and being alone.
These books are filled with information about Navajo customs and culture.
Tony Hillerman had a great love of the land and the people, and these books cherish the Navajo. That love is clearly instilled in daughter Anne. Read these 23 books, and you’ll gain an insight to Navajo culture, language, and history.
And it is a journey well worth taking. Navajo culture is pretty awesome. (Remember the Code Talkers in WWII?)
As just one little tidbit, the Navajo (the Diné) really don’t understand revenge. When someone does something bad, they see it as that person being out of balance (hózhó) with life. The goal is to restore that person’s balance.
As someone who is misanthropic and irascible, these books have been something of a spiritual mountain I try to climb (I tend to get stuck in the foothills, but I keep trying; we all need to aspire).
I’m not usually a fan of other authors continuing a series. Generally speaking, I think fictional characters should die with their author.
But generally speaking, I won’t read the work of replacement authors. I wrote recently about Rex Stout and the Nero Wolfe books. Someone is writing new ones, but I have no interest.
(In contrast, J.K. Rowling declared she was done with Harry Potter and we all know how that turned out. No applause there.)
Sherlock Holmes presents an interesting exception. I wrote recently about the diffuse nature of the character. Many stories are takes on the original, but many authors have contributed new stories.
But when it’s the author’s daughter, and the daughter clearly shares the love her dad had for the land and the people, that’s keeping it in the family, and I’m totally cool with it.
Bottom line: I highly recommend these books. If you like police procedurals, or if you like detective stories or murder mysteries, these deliver on all counts. And they are steeped in Navajo lore and the sheer beauty of the land.
I said these books are my second favorite mystery books of all. That includes murder mysteries and general detective stories (which aren’t always murder mysteries, although there is considerable overlap).
Stay in hózhó, my friends!