Thursday, October 28, 2021


Tony Hillerman: The Mystery Writer who was a Change Agent - Guest post by James McGrath Morris 

When Tony Hillerman sat down at his typewriter in the late 1960s his plan was only to write a saleable mystery novel. As he typed away, his insecurity about the task ahead drove him to include a Navajo element. The Oklahoma native, and now New Mexico resident, was confident of his writing ability after years in journalism. But he remained unsure he could pull off a mystery. “I thought that the Navajos and the Navajo reservation were so intriguing that even if my plots weren’t so good, the background would be interesting,” Hillerman said. 

So he placed his protagonist, a white anthropologist, on the Navajo Nation and created a supporting character by introducing a Navajo Tribal Police detective whom he named Joe Leaphorn. He invented the name after reading Mary Renault’s 1962 novel The Bull from the Sea. She wrote about Cretans jumping over the bull’s horns and Hillerman made up the name Leaphorn. It didn’t matter that there were no Navajos with such a name. “Besides,” Hillerman thought, “the policeman wasn’t going to be that important anyway, the anthropologist was going to be the main character.” 

When he completed the book Hillerman recognized the significance of what he had done, accident or no accident, by introducing Leaphorn as a secondary character in his first book. So did some reviewers, such as Allen J. Hubin in The New York Times Book Review. For Hubin, the great appeal of The Blessing Way lay not with the white archeologist who served as the protagonist but rather with Hillerman’s cast of Navajo characters. 

Bookstore mystery shelves back then were loaded down with detective novels set in urban milieus, like those written by Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and other masters of the form. Except for a little-known Australian writer, Arthur Upfield, the world of fictional detectives was white, male, and citified. A rez cop was something new and noteworthy. 

As soon as he finished his second novel—a book with no Native Americans—Hillerman began a new book in which he would make Joe Leaphorn the main character and fully fleshed out. The resulting novel, Dance Hall of the Dead, was published in 1973 and launched what is now recognized as a groundbreaking 18-book series that changed the genre. Hillerman, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “reinvented the mystery novel as a venue for the exploration and celebration of Native American history, culture and identity.” 

In the end, Hillerman’s greatest achievement was not the writing of spellbinding mysteries. Rather, it was his use of the popular genre to unlock the mysteries of Navajo culture for non-Natives like him. Just as Mary Renault’s earlier novels did with ancient Greece, Hillerman’s books introduced millions of readers to the Diné way of life in a respectful and compelling manner that remains a relevant model for cross-cultural communication. 

James McGrath Morris is author of the new biography, TONY HILLERMAN: A Life (University of Oklahoma Press Hardcover; October 14, 2021).


James McGrath Morris is an award-winning and New York Times best-selling author. His books include The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Pasos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War; Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press; and Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power. He is the former president of Biographers International Organization, of which he was among the original founders. In 2019, he received the BIO Award, which is given to a writer who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous winners, among others, include: Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, and Candice Millard. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information, visit: and


1 comment:

Nancy Lynn Jarvis said...

Tony Hillerman inspired me to write mysteries. I read his entire series and decided I would play with the world of real estate, not as significant an influence as the Navaho Nation, but fun for me. The result is a seven book series, Regan McHenry Real Estate Mysteries, and a woman with a mystery writing addiction.