When successful and best-selling authors pass away it is easy to understand why their surviving family members, estate trustees, agents, publishers and booksellers have a legitimate interest in wishing to find a way to extend that stream of profitability (much as we see a proliferation of big-name authors employing “smaller name” co-authors in order to increase publication numbers and book profits ad nauseam.) Truth is, that ability to become the living/breathing alter ego of the deceased creator of those characters whose very heartbeat lay at the center of their appeal to a loyal procession of fans can seldom be found even in the most talented of literary copy-cats.
I lay this groundwork in order to underline my great pleasure in the discovery of an exception. When the best-selling writer of Navajo crime fiction Tony Hillerman passed from this world in October of 2008, I like millions of other Hillerman fans around the world mourned the loss – not only of a much-loved writer, World War II combat veteran (Silver Star, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and Purple Heart) – but a great American Gentleman. I lamented as well the end of the line for Lt. Joe Leaphorn, Officer Jim Chee and his new wife, Navajo Police-woman Bernadette Manuelito, fictional people so well cast and beautifully drawn by their creator that one knew they too would never live again.
We might have been less sanguine had we understood the close relationship between the late author and his talented daughter, Anne Hillerman, herself a successful writer, columnist, and acolite to her Dad when writing Tony Hillerman’s Landscape. With a contract for two books under her arm she wrote Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013 followed by Rock With Wings in 2015. So closely does the dialogue, the depiction of the surroundings through which the reader travels, and the speech and imprint of the spiritual side of Navajo life and culture come across that Hillerman addicts might be excused for thinking they’re reading an unpublished but recently uncovered manuscript of her father’s.
While Anne’s attention to visual and didactic detail match her Dad’s, she brings an obvious and not unwelcome feminine touch to the storyline; for instance young Bernie Manuelito grows in importance and activity actually solving crimes rather than merely being a good assistant. Bernie now has a mother and somewhat troubled younger sister to interact with, while the domestic side of the young married couple’s life together comes into play.
Several years ago, with the illustrated Hillerman Country and an accompanying fold-out map for guidance, my wife and I spent a week-or-more visiting the exact places where the footsteps of Chee and Leaphorn would have taken them in the course of their various adventures. Chaco Canyon country in particular cast an unforgettable spell over us. It is one of those places where you tend to whisper when you talk and reflect deeply as you take each step. If I get to repeat that awe-inspiring journey again, I will make certain to read Tony Hillerman’s The Thief of Time first.
A parting word on the craft of writing which comes to mind at this personal juncture: Like most people who write, I read a lot and I read intently. I am deeply interested in and often fascinated by the little things that reveal not just the brain-borne thinking, but the very heart of the writer. The invention of a brand new character the world has never known until the moment your pen or keystroke gives it life involves a form of creativity I will never cease to marvel at. The few times I have turned my hand to writing fiction (small fiction!) the more I have humbly shied away. With Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Lt. Leaphorn I know I have met a Master.
Thank you Anne for bringing them back.