Monday, October 27, 2008

Tony Hillerman RIP

Tony Hillerman, the "Anglo" novelist who depicted the Navajo nation so well that they gave him an award, has died at 83. His mystery novels may be the best door into understanding Navajo culture, and Navajo country, that exist.

He was also a good and kind man. In the 80's we both belonged to a group of New Mexico writers who met for lunch once a month at a diner in Albuquerque. I was unknown and he perhaps the most famous of all of us. But he tirelessly promoted the books of less- known writers, and without my asking gave me a wonderful blurb for Querencia- the- book.

So long, Tony. You'll be missed, as a writer and a human being.


Chas S. Clifton said...

I am amazed that he last this long -- and sad that there won't be any more books.

His novels should have been neo-Western movies. What happened?? The Dark Wind had a made-for-TV feel to it, and Lou Diamond Phillips was a sort of scrawny Jim Chee, in my opinion. So was Adam Beach in Skinwalkers. But Redford said that Hollywood was afraid of movies with NA themes.

Maybe so.

I did not see the TV movie version of Thief of Time. Maybe it's on Netflix.

Mark Churchill said...

I haven't (yet) read all of Tony Hillerman's books, but like Chas I'm sad to think that the canon is finite, and now complete.

Personally, I enjoyed the PBS productions of Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, and Thief of Time. Adam Beach is a convincing Jim Chee, and Wes Studi is Joe Leaphorn. Like Edward Hardwicke as Watson and Jeremy Brett as Holmes, they deepened my appreciation for the books by voicing the dialogue when I went back and re-read them. I often have a better experience with fiction if I cast the movie in my head, matching an actor's speech patterns and mannerisms to each written character, and I can't imagine improving on these two actors for these roles.

I also liked the fact that the producers took liberties with the novels: most notably in playing with the overall timeline so that we actually meet and get to know (and maybe develop a little crush on) Emma Leaphorn (played by Sheila Tousey). I suspect that Hosteen Hillerman didn't mind the tinkering.

Mark Churchill said...

I forgot to mention the TV version of Leaphorn as a man somewhat cut off from his culture: raised in Phoenix, unfamiliar with Dine social norms. The contrast between Leaphorn-the-outsider and Chee-the-traditional was illuminating, and this extra dimension allowed for a different, more complex relationship between the two men. Nice to see character development elaborated upon rather than truncated when a book is brought to the screen; that doesn't happen near often enough.

Steve Bodio said...

Thanks Mark. I haven't seen any of the adaptations. But FWIW the contrast between traditional Chee and "modern" Leaphorn is in the books too.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Studi was OK as Leaphorn, Mark, but I always imagined the lieutenant as having an ex-military buzz cut, as many Indian men of his generation did.

Beach was too pretty to be Jim Chee!

Mark Churchill said...


It's played up even more in the TV versions. Leaphorn is not just "modern", he's almost a white city guy—unaware of his clan affiliations, unsure about rural etiquette, etc.


Agree to disagree on Adam Beach. I thought he did a good job with the somewhat hapless side of Jim Chee: gun always in the glovebox at the critical moment, getting distracted while on surveillance and missing the backhoe theft, crashing his would-be girlfriend's car...

I could absolutely see Wes Studi portraying a crewcut Leaphorn. But since his previous best-known roles were the shaven Pawnee warrior in Dances With Wolves and the shaven Huron captain Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, he probably enjoyed getting to wear his hair a bit longer! ; )