The Navajo detectives of Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman was an award-winning author who wrote detective stores in the great tradition of Sherlock Holmes-- but from a unique point of view. His detectives, and the mysteries they solve, offer many insights into Navajo culture and the American Southwest.

Since Sherlock Holmes made detective stories popular, many different authors have created their own detectives. Sherlock emphasized the importance of careful observation and deductions, and almost all of these detectives do too. They recognize connections that others have missed to solve crimes that the regular police cannot resolve. In almost every other way the detectives of different authors are very different.

Some are professional private investigators (private eyes.) Others are amateurs (private citizens who don’t get paid to work as detectives.) Some are sweet old ladies, others are tough men with a criminal past, or ordinary people who are just trying to help a friend.

Hillerman's Top Detectives

a photo from Monument Valley-- Tony Hillerman country.Tony Hillerman country
a photo from Monument Valley-- Tony Hillerman country

Two of my favorites are Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, created by Tony Hillerman. Hillerman was white (an Anglo-American), but he grew up with a lot of native-American friends. He loved Navajo culture and the wide-open spaces of the American Southwest. One of his strongest motivations for writing was to share the beauty of the Southwest and of Navajo culture with the rest of the world.

Tony Hillerman’s detectives are both Navajos, but their personalities are very different. Joe is older and experienced in dealing with his fellow Navajos and with Anglos and people of other tribes who live in the “Four corners” area. (The Four Corners is the hilly high desert area where the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet. The Navajo reservation takes up a large part of that area.)

Joe values the traditions and customs of his people, but he doesn’t believe in some of the old teachings about witches and spirits-- the beliefs many whites call “superstitions.” However, he has seen how powerful those beliefs can be. In some of Hillerman’s mysteries a criminal uses these beliefs to hide his crime.

Jim Chee is younger and keeps more of the old Navajo traditions and beliefs. He is more likely to trust his instincts (his ‘feeling’ about a situation), while Joe Leaphorn uses more western investigative techniques. Both are careful to examine all the evidence. At first they do not like each other very much, but as the series of books continues they learn to work together.

The process they follow to solve a crime is quite similar to Sherlock’s investigations. They carefully study all the evidence at a crime scene, and listen to all the witnesses they can find, to get clues. Then they analyze what they’ve learned, and use their knowledge of past crimes, human nature, and their local area to connect the clues and make deductions. Their deductions show them the next steps to take to find more evidence and finally enable them to solve the crime.

That’s all standard detective procedure, though they are experts at it. What makes Hillerman’s detectives unique is their insights into Navajo culture, with the differences in the way Navajos understand life and death and the ways they act and react. Those insights enable them to understand motives and solve crimes that the FBI and other detectives are not able to solve.

A Sample Book by Tony Hillerman: The Wailing Wind

The Wailing Wind is one of Tony Hillerman’s later books. In it he introduces a third detective of the Navajo tribal police, Bernie Manuelito. One day, as she was driving through the lonely countryside, she looked into a deserted truck and found a dead body. She didn’t see any blood, and it looked like the man had died of natural causes. Later she realized he was murdered. She got into trouble because the way she investigated the area had disturbed some of the evidence.

Bernie asked her supervisor, Jim Chee, for help. He ended up asking Joe Leaphorn to help with the investigation as well. Each one contributed their own talents and insights to the case. (Bernie’s special contribution was a knowledge of plants, that helped her figure out where the murder took place.)

There were many complications in the story (what we call “twists and turns of the plot”), and some real danger, especially to Bernie, before they solved the crime. In the process, Bernie and Jim began to fall in love.

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