Tony Hillerman has gone to reap his heavenly reward.
I begin that way only because I’m sure that the comment would bemuse Hillerman, who died this week at age 83.
You could sum up Hillerman’s career by saying he wrote murder mysteries, mostly about two Navajo policemen. But for my money, that would be like saying that Jane Austen wrote romances, as if they were bodice-rippers.
I’m not usually a reader of mysteries. Raymond Chandler’s critique of the mystery writers before him, in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” is blunt, brutal and accurate: The crimes aren’t believable and the mysteries are contrived. All together too many mystery writers after Chandler thought they were following his model by having their detectives talk tough. They didn’t notice the sheer poetry of Chandler’s sentences, or his astonished awe at the corruption of life, or the Christian theology coursing through his stories, in which Phillip Marlowe is the lone redeemer of a sinful world.
Besides Chandler, Hillerman is about the only mystery writer who grabs me. In his best moments, describing the scenery of the Southwest, he approaches lyric poetry. Usually his prose is simpler, a craftsman’s prose, not an artist’s. But like Chandler, he wrote mysteries because they gave him the chance to reflect and experiment and test and wonder about the real mysteries, the ones for which there is no solution. Like Chandler, he was a heretical theologian.
The mystery that seemed to bother him the most was what came after the crime: Does justice and punishment really repair the tear in the world? If you committed the crime, or rather the sin, is their redemption?
Strangely, Hillerman’s two novels placed outside of Navaho country may frame his concerns the best. In The Fly on the Wall, an early story based on his experience as a newsman, a reporter tracks down a corruption scandal that led to murders in a nameless state capital. Running through the story is the question of whether reporting the truth will bring justice or cause needless suffering. The reporter’s love interest challenges him: So you reveal that a bureaucrat was on the take, and he gets caught? What about the shame and pain you cause his daughter? And what if the scam was meant to elect the better, more honest politician and eliminate the cruel one? Where’s justice lie in all this?
And then there’s Finding Moon, which isn’t a mystery at all, just an adventure story amid the fall of Vietnam in 1975. But right at the center of the tale is a man who once killed his best friend in an accident, and whose mother sacrificed her happiness to keep him out of jail. In the midst of his adventure, he steps into a confession booth in a Catholic church in Manila to hold long conversations with the bored priest on midnight duty about whether he can ever make up for what he’s done. The rest of the book extends that question.
Read those two stories and then the Navajo ones, and you understand that what attracted Hillerman to the Navajos is that they have, in his description, such a different understanding of human failing and renewal that the words sin and justice don’t describe them. A Navajo cop is a contradiction in terms, just like a reporter who worries about the damage caused by telling the whole truth. Along the way, Hillerman also tried to figure out whether an ancient tradition could survive in the face of modern America, with its highways liquor casinos machines and greed, not to mention nine-to-five jobs and houses from which one could not see the sun rising. His shamans are rabbinic masters standing at the edge of modernity looking for its lost soul.
At the end of his books the murders were solved, not the mystery. Maybe now he has reached the final chapter, where he learns the answers.