In what is becoming a sad Monday ritual, news has broken about the death of a major literary figure over the weekend. Mystery writer Tony Hillerman, whose Navajo Tribal Police novels were perennial bestsellers, died of pulmonary failure on Sunday.
Mr. Hillerman’s evocative novels, which describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world, touched millions of readers, who made them best sellers. But although the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with a purpose, he often said, and that purpose was to instill in his readers a respect for Indian culture. The plots of his stories, while steeped in contemporary crime and its consequences, were invariably instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals for a soldier returned from a foreign war to incest taboos for a proper clan marriage.
Hillerman, a resident of Albuquerque, wrote 18 Navajo Tribal Police novels, beginning with 1970’s The Blessing Way. He won the Edgar Allan Poe award in 1973 for Dance Halls of the Dead, and his 1987 novel Skinwalkers won the Golden Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. In 1991 he won the Grandmaster Award, the highest honour from the Mystery Writers of America.