Tue, Oct 28, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Famed mystery writer Tony Hillerman dies at age 83

AP, PHOENIX , ARIZONA

Tony Hillerman, author of the acclaimed Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels and creator of two of the unlikeliest of literary heroes — Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee — died on Sunday of pulmonary failure. He was 83.

Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, said her father’s health had been declining in the last couple years and that he was at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque when he died at about 3pm.

Hillerman lived through two heart attacks and surgeries for prostate and bladder cancer. He kept tapping at his keyboard even as his eyes began to dim, as his hearing faded, as rheumatoid arthritis turned his hands into claws.

“I’m getting old,” he declared in 2002, “but I still like to write.”

Anne Hillerman said on Sunday that her father was a born storyteller: “He had such a wonderful, wonderful curiosity about the world ... He could take little details and bring them to life, not just in his books, but in conversation, too.”

Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, introduced in The Blessing Way in 1970, was an experienced police officer who understood, but did not share, his people’s traditional belief in a rich spirit world. Officer Jim Chee, introduced in People of Darkness in 1978, was a younger officer studying to become a hathaali — Navajo for “shaman.”

Together, they struggled daily to bridge the cultural divide between the dominant Anglo society and the impoverished people who call themselves the Dineh.

Hillerman’s commercial breakthrough was Skinwalkers, published in 1987 — the first time he put both characters and their divergent world views in the same book. It sold 430,000 hardcover copies, paving the way for A Thief of Time which made several best seller lists. In all, he wrote 18 books in the Navajo series, the most recent titled The Shape Shifter.

Each is characterized by an unadorned writing style, intricate plotting, memorable characterization and vivid descriptions of Indian rituals and of the vast plateau of the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.

Although Hillerman was best-known for the Navajo series, he wrote more than 30 books.

Hillerman is survived by his wife, Marie, and their six children.

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