Acclaimed author Tony Hillerman dies at 83

By AMANDA LEE MYERS - Associated Press Writer Modified: October 27, 2008 at 8:47 am •  Published: October 27, 2008
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PHOENIX -- 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 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 3 p.m.

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 Sunday that her father was a born storyteller.

"He had such a wonderful, wonderful curiosity about the world," she said. "He could take little details and bring them to life, not just in his books, but in conversation, too."

Lt. 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.

The most acclaimed of them, including "Talking God" and "The Coyote Waits," are subtle explorations of human nature and the conflict between cultural assimilation and the pull of the old ways.

"I want Americans to stop thinking of Navajos as primitive persons, to understand that they are sophisticated and complicated," Hillerman once said. Born May 27, 1925, in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma, population...