Looking for Joe Leaphorn

tony-hillerman_arizona_new-mexico_american-west_literature_joe-leaphornFew novelists today are better at exploring the American West and expanding its literature than Tony Hillerman.

That’s right. I mean Western literature, not mystery.

Look at it this way: Hillerman’s heroes pack guns, wear hats and eventually bring law and order to their country, at least until the next installment hits bookshelves. The only difference is that Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are Navajo Tribal policemen and products of the 20th century.

I’ve been a big fan of Hillerman since picking up Dance Hall of the Dead years ago. I’ve listened to a Listening Woman audiobook (narrated by the excellent George Guidall) while driving from Tuba City to Window Rock, Arizona. I remember interviewing actor Wes Studi at his Santa Fe, New Mexico, home and telling him he’d make a great Joe Leaphorn (and anytime I catch an episode of Mystery on PBS and see Studi playing Leaphorn, even if his Leaphorn isn’t Hillerman’s vision of Leaphorn, I say to myself, “Gee, Wes, couldn’t you just buy me a cheeseburger for helping you land that part?”).

Yeah, Hillerman’s first-rate. So is the country he writes about.

Jeff Slade thinks so, too. That’s why his Mesa-based Detours of Arizona offers multi-day tours through “Hillerman Country,” departing from Phoenix, Arizona, or Albuquerque, New Mexico, hitting Grand Canyon National Park, the Hopi mesas, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Zuni Mission and Sedona. “It’ll blow you away,” Slade says of some of the sights.

The tours highlight the settings of several Leaphorn-Chee mysteries, including Coyote Waits and The Fallen Man. Guests can even meet a character straight out of The Wailing Wind. Well, Navajo silversmith James Peshlakai’s name does appear in that novel, and he’s a friend of Hillerman, not to mention a former Navajo cop.

One highlight has to be the “Sistine Chapel of the West,” the 1629 Catholic mission at Zuni Pueblo and the setting for Dance Hall of the Dead.

Which brings up this bit of insight from Choctaw novelist D.L. Birchfield, author of Field of Honor and Black Silk Handkerchief: “Sometimes authors can create problems unintentionally by being too accurate. Dance Hall of the Dead is an example where Hillerman set the climax of the story during the Zuni Shalako religious festival. Hillerman described the ceremonies so enchantingly that when the book came out, some readers mistook Shalako for a tourist event and inundated it the next year. Hillerman, to his credit, soon began showing sensitivity to that sort of problem. In A Thief of Time, he provided an author’s note telling the reader he had disguised the location of Many Ruins Canyon, and by the time he wrote Sacred Clowns, he’d adopted the sensible approach of creating a fictitious Pueblo.” Our point: Be respectful of native culture.

You can explore on your own, of course. Check out the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and galleries in Gallup, New Mexico. The Painted Desert and Petrified Forest are always worthwhile excursions, and one of my favorite stops is Chee’s (alas, not Jim Chee’s) on I-40 in Houck, Arizona, just over the New Mexico border, for jewelry, fry bread and a big selection of Hillerman paperbacks.

Hillerman’s home is Albuquerque, frequently featured in the Leaphorn-Chee mysteries. You may even find the author at his favorite restaurant, the Frontier on Central Avenue, but watch your back when around the University of New Mexico campus. Some of Hillerman’s villains have UNM ties.

I keep waiting for Professor Paul Andrew Hutton’s name to appear in the next Leaphorn-Chee mystery.

Road warrior Johnny D. Boggs recommends the Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Weatherford Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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