It was in the early 1980s that I fell in love with Tony Hillerman. The first book I read was Listening Woman (1978) which I read in Swedish [Kvinnan som lyssnade1979]. My wife caught sight of the title on my nightstand and wondered if I was trying to tell her something. I was not. It’s a good story starring Navajo tribal policeman, Joe Leaphorn. Joe is well into middle age, acclimatised to white society, a bit estranged from his Navajo roots. His wife is dead and he is not really looking forward to retirement. I doubt that all of this comes up in Listening Woman; you follow Joe’s progress through the whole series of books – 18 in English, 10 translated into Swedish.
In this book Leaphorn investigates the brutal murders of a teenage girl and an old man. A blind Navajo seer – the listening woman – talks about witches. Witches are often male in Navajo culture and always bad. They recur in several books. Joe doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but when the people around you do, it is unwise to disregard their beliefs.
Hillerman was a journalist and his language is ok but he can be read in translation without losing much. His plots and storytelling, though, are brilliant and his characters vivid. Rereading the first book in the series, The Blessing Way, 1970 [Välsignelsens väg 1996] it’s easy to see that Hillerman was unsure of his adopted culture and Leaphorn himself is less clearly defined. As Hillerman became surer of the Navajo Way he gave Leaphorn a younger colleague, Jim Chee, a much more traditional Navajo, who trains to become a “singer” one who can perform the days long rituals which restore peace and harmony to those who have lost them. This is difficult to combine with police work. And the agnostic Leaphorn does not make things easier.
A good deal of the joy of Hillerman – besides a riveting mystery – is the revelation of the Navajo way of life and sense – as well as of Pueblo and Zuni cultures. The setting too is stark; the great Southwest; desert, table top mountains, deep canyons and ancient ruins. And Joe is sad, but not depressed. He works hard, thinks clearly and does not back down from danger.
Hillerman is also really good at showing us the inner workings of the minds of killers!