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Books > Hillerman follows in her father’s footsteps

By Arin McKenna

A packed room greeted Anne Hillerman at Mesa Public Library last Wednesday. Many of those attending were fans of Anne’s father, Tony Hillerman, who had come to learn more about “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” Anne’s continuation of his popular mystery series set in Navajo country.

“The book was released Oct.1, and I feel like this month has been one giant baby shower,” Hillerman said.

Hillerman has won numerous awards for her nonfiction writing. Her books include “Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: on the Road with Chee and Leaphorn,” which combines Hillerman’s narrative with photographs by her husband, Don Strel. This was Hillerman’s first venture into fiction.

After providing some biographical information about her father and his career, Hillerman spoke about growing up with his two main characters, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Tony wrote 18 mystery novels in the series, as well as 12 nonfiction books, two non-series novels and three stories for children.

“Dad’s work was praised for its pioneering use of a new kind of detective: crime solvers who were not jaded white guys with a bottle of bourbon in their desk drawer, but guys like him who appreciated a good cup of coffee,” Hillerman said.

Tony Hillerman grew up in Indian country in Oklahoma.

His first encounter with the Navajo came when he was driving drilling pipe to the Navajo reservation, and encountered some Navajo people in full ceremonial regalia. He asked them about it, and was told they were performing an Enemy Way ceremony for some marines returning home.

Hillerman himself had been seriously wounded serving in the army in France during World War II. He asked to attend the ceremony.

“He often said that experience —not only the beauty of the ceremony and the smell of the mutton and the coffee — but the openheartedness of the Navajo people and their realization that these young warriors needed some extra love, some extra attention to be reintegrated into their world…That was really the start of his love affair with the Navajo people and with the landscape that they call sacred,” Hillerman said.

After several years as a journalist, Tony began teaching at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and writing novels. The first Joe Leaphorn novel, “The Blessing Way,” came out in 1970. Hillerman believes that Leaphorn was the character her father loved best.

“I was delighted when my father signed one of the first copies of “The Blessing Way” to me. He signed it, ‘To Anne, a very satisfactory daughter, for whom any father would like to write something weightier than this.’
“I love this inscription, because it really speaks to dad’s yen to write the great American novel. And he thought he would warm up with writing a mystery, and then he would go on to write the great American novel.”

Jim Chee was introduced in the fourth book in the series. But the character that really drew Anne’s attention was Bernadette Manuelito, introduced in the twelfth book in the series, “The Fallen Man.”

As Hillerman was rereading the entire series as background for “Tony Hillerman’s Landscapes,” she noticed that “Bernie” grew as a character, but was never quite given the chance to solve the mystery on her own.

“So I said, ‘Dad, why don’t you let Bernie act like a real police woman? Why don’t you let her solve the crime?’ And he gave me one of those funny smiles and said, ‘Oh, honey, that’s a good idea.’”

Tony’s next book, “The Shapeshifter,” was his last. Bernie and Chee only had minor roles in the novel.

“So the idea of Bernadette Manuelito really stuck with me,” Hillerman said.

Hillerman and Strel began leading tours based on “Tony Hillerman’s Landscapes.” One of the first questions people would ask was whether her father had left any unfinished manuscripts in the Chee/Leaphorn series. Hillerman shared their disappointment when she would have to tell them no.

“I felt the same way,” Hillerman said. “After I got over the worst of missing my dad, I thought, I’m missing my uncles, too. What’s going on with Jim and Joe?

“And then, I was thinking of Bernie. And I thought, she really needs to have her day in the sun. And if anybody’s going to do it, I guess it will be me.”

Hillerman ran the idea past her mother, who liked it. When the novel began taking shape she ran it by her father’s publisher, HarperCollins, to be certain of the legalities. The publisher gave the go ahead and offered to read the manuscript.

Hillerman appreciates the fact that she did not start with a blank computer screen but with an established formula for the mystery novel and her father’s legacy.

“I have inherited all these wonderful characters,” Hillerman said. “I knew that one thing I had to do was really to make the series my own. And I was so grateful that my dad had created the character of Bernadette Manuelito and then basically left her undeveloped. That gave me a lot to play with.”

Hillerman fleshed out some other characters from the Chee/Leaphorn series and added a new character, Bernie’s sister Darlene.

Hillerman also focused attention on the landscape, which was always a critical element in the series.

“He used Albuquerque where he lived, and Santa Fe, a little bit in his books. But his fans know that what really spoke to his heart were places that were less convenient, places like Baby Rocks, Gold Tooth, Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Sheep Springs,” Hillerman said.

Spider Woman’s daughter incorporates Chaco Canyon as well as some time spent in Santa Fe.

The presentation was punctuated with readings by Emma Lathrop, Benjamin Reidys and Darcy Turin of the Los Alamos High School Hilltalkers.

Hillerman was careful not to reveal the secrets of the mystery, but did include an explosive first scene.

“I figured when people heard there was a new Chee/Leaphorn book, the first thing they would think is, ‘Oh, thank goodness. There was another Tony Hillerman manuscript.’

“And then, when they saw the name Anne there, they would be a little suspicious.

“So I thought, maybe if I was lucky, they would give me five minutes, starting at page one. So I knew I had to get their attention, right from the start.”

Hillerman is already 50,000 words into a second novel in the series, set in Monument Valley. “Spider Woman’s Daughter” is currently being translated into French by the same person who translated her father’s novels.