Sad news for mystery fans everywhere that Tony Hillerman died Sunday; information on the author’s life and career can be found in the Associated Press obituary, as printed in the Washington Post. Many years ago, I went through a period of devouring Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series the way I’ve done with few other authors — enthralled by that mix of masterful storytelling and rich social, cultural and historical detail about tribal life. I remember being on a family trip, sitting in the backseat of the car and desperately working my way through one novel as the miles whizzed past, and then as soon as we arrived at our destination, trying to find a bookstore — any bookstore — where I could pick up another of Hillerman’s books. I don’t remember where my family was headed on that vacation, but I do recall vividly being transported into the world of the novels and wanting to return there again and again.
In memoriam, here’s a short excerpt from A Thief of Time, one of the first of Hillerman’s novels that I myself read and one of the “breakthrough” novels that put him firmly on the bestseller lists. The opening passage takes place under “the light of an October moon”:
The moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick-figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand. Sometimes, when the goat trail bent and put the walker’s profile against the moon, the shadow became Kokopelli himself. The backpack formed the spirit’s grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli’s crooked flute. Seen from above, the shadow would have made a Navajo believe that the great yei northern clans called Watersprinkler had taken visible form. If an Anasazi had risen from his thousand-year grave in the trash heap under the cliff ruins here, he would have seen the Humpbacked Flute Player, the rowdy god of fertility of his lost people….
Do yourself a favor: Find the rest of the book, and read it now.
— Art Taylor
A brief P.S.: Please do check out Dennis Drabelle’s short blog piece on meeting Hillerman — it’s brief, but both poignant and pointed.