Tony Hillerman

[From the vaults, October 27, 2008]

Aw, hell. Tony’s dead.

Tony HillermanI think we’d all come to think of him as indestructible. He’d survived half a dozen diseases any one of which would have taken any one of us out. But he continued to thrive, and continued to write, thank heavens.
If you want to read a perfect first chapter, go get yourself a copy of Skinwalkers. It’s late at night, and Jim Chee is fretting in his bed because he hears a stray cat coming into his trailer through the pet door. Is he upsetting the balance of harmony in the Navajo way by feeding the cat? He gets up, and a second later a shotgun blasts through the wall of his trailer right over the bed in which he was laying. It is a gotcha moment like none other in crime fiction, and some of the best writing ever in the English language.

I had the incalculable good fortune of being on a panel with Tony Hillerman at my first Bouchercon. If I could have hated him, I would have, because it was immediately obvious that along with being a superb writer he was also a fabulous raconteur, funny, smart, the rest of us should have just passed him the microphone and shut up. I’m pretty sure the audience felt the same way.

Later that year I got a letter from some guy named Marty Greenberg, whom I’d never met and of whom I’d never heard, saying that Tony Hillerman was putting together an anthology of crime fiction short stories called The Mysterious West, and would I like to contribute a story?

coyote waitsI was outraged. It was impossible for Tony Hillerman to even know who I was. All I’d done on the panel was try not to drool in his lap. If he remembered me at all it was as that frizzy-haired, red-faced newbie with stars in her eyes when she looked at him, who in an agony of embarassment exceded only by abject fan worship shoved a copy of Coyote Waits under his nose as the panel broke up and begged him to sign it to her.

Anyway, I called my agent in high dudgeon and told him about this letter that some guy had written to me taking Tony’s name in vain, and demanded that he DO something about it. “Dana,” Rich replied in a voice as dry as King Tut’s tomb, “that’s Marty Greenberg, a very reputable and well-known anthologist, and you will write back immediately and say yes.”


We’re going to miss you, Tony. Thanks for writing all those books so we can at least drop in for a visit now and then.


Dana View All →

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16 Comments Leave a comment

  1. There is new bright star in the heavens.

    Other than the joy of a well-crafted mystery with wonderful characters, Tony Hillerman brought his love of the Navajo Reservation its people to life for me from the first book. My Indian Country map has been replaced more than once from being folded and re-folded as I followed each adventure. The map has been on several vacations where I, again followed Leaphorn and Chee through the towns and hogbacks of the reservation. My husband and I spent part of last summer’s vacation savoring the beauty of the land as we went out of our way on the drive from Albuquerque, NM to Durango, CO so we could stay the night on the reservation, in Cameron, AZ and eat the best Navajo tacos on the planet.

    Thank you Tony for the instruction on a People and a Place that will last me forever, you will be missed.

  2. Hillerman , Clark , David Alexander , Bruce Alexander , The list I keep in my head grows shorter at one end . Thank you that it grows at the other also . From the old names like Heinlein , Schmitz , Simak ,Corwainer Smith to the”new ” Jim Butcher , Sharon Shinn PAINTERS WHO BRING COLOR TO MY WORLD . . . Dana – you are on the list also .

  3. Aw, Hell;
    Perfectly said. A literary light is gone and we, along with the Navajo Nation, have lost a friend.

    It is wonderful to listen to Tony read his autobiography for Recorded Books. What a rich, full life, what an honorable man.

    His books, right next to yours, fill my shelves, to be read and re-read.

    I hope you managed to get to read Finding Moon.

    Stay healthy,

  4. Hey, Dana and all,
    Erma’s “aw, hell” sums up exactly my reaction. Lots of folks blogging about Tony’s death are mentioning SELDOM DISAPPOINTED and oh yeah, it captured the guy perfectly. If anyone wants to, I’ve talked about Tony on my blog as well. I raise this only because my experience with Tony began, I think, with that very Bouchercon. Am I right, Dana? Was in Seattle ’94? We had a really good panel set up there and I admit to being so very thrilled when another panelist came to me years later and thanked me for putting her on it, as it was her first Bcon as well and wow, Tony Hillermanm, wow. It was right that she be on it, and it was right for you as well. It makes me proud, it really does, to know how you felt about that (If I’m remembering right.) And I know you/knew you then and know you to be his equal as a raconteur as well as a writer, so there.

  5. I loaned one of Tony’s mysteries to my SIL when she headed out to NM for a pediatric internship on the rez. Of course, I never saw it again. He also wrote some of my very favorite non-fiction, about (of course) the Southwest. Some of it is fairly grim, like the account of a plague outbreak, but some of it is as funny in its way as anything by Durrell.

    I know what my next comfort read will be.

  6. A ton of my favorite authors have passed on recently: Tony, Madeleine L’engle, Robert Asprin, Charles Grant (who died in ’06, but I didn’t find out till last month), Robert Jordan…

    Dana, you best be taking your vitamins…:)

  7. 2014 – Ah, you made me cry. I remember that day. So sad. I had discovered Tony years before when visiting a southwest national park–Mesa Verde, I think. Skinwalker was in their gift shop. Thus began a love affair with Hillerman’s books and the southwest. Even did one vacation following the trails of Chee and Leaphorn (Hillerman did like to move things around and the Navajo Police station looks different than expected.) The Mysterious West led me to more authors including you, Dana Stabenow. Now there’s one bookshelf packed with books by authors Hillerman recommended. Great storytellers all.

  8. My very favorite of his books is not in his usual series or non-fiction, though I love everything he has written. It is “Finding Moon”- which I thought from the name would be in the series. But is actually about a man who travels both in miles and in his life trying to carry out a wish from a brother who died unexpectedly. His mother initially tried to carry out the quest but herself passed away while far from home. “Moon” Mathias is given the news and ends up in situations totally out of his normal sphere of life and comfort zone. Amazing reading. Anyone else feel the same?

  9. I think I read all of Tony Hillermans books right up until I started reading yours Dana. My Mom suggested him to me.

    Now, I’ve gone and done the Ebay search for all of your books. I gifted Mom 1-10 of Kate Shugak series for Mother’s Day…the rest she will have for Christmas. Mother like daughter on our reading lists.

    Thank you for sharing your story!

  10. A Thief of Time was my first Hillerman read and I was hooked. So sad to lose him for his own sake but we are thrice bereaved because we lose Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, as well. I was able to realize a dream born from his books when I got to tour the Four Corners area three years ago and see the beautiful land he brought to life in his writing. Thank you, Tony Hillerman, for introducing me to that.

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