BY MARTIN KICH
Hillerman, Tony. Skinwalkers. New York: Harper, 1986.
The impact of Tony Hillerman’s novels featuring Navajo policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn has had few precedents in the history of the mystery-detective genre. Although Chee and Leaphorn were not the first fictional Native American detectives, no previous novel or series featuring Native Americans resonated so deeply with individual readers and across the broader culture. Hillerman’s series has created a readership for several dozen subsequent series and hundreds of individual novels featuring Native American characters and themes, most but not all of which have had Western settings. In a broader sense, the series has exponentially expanded the market for mysteries featuring “ethnic” detectives and regional settings.
Although Hillerman was not a Native American, he received relatively little criticism questioning the credibility of his characterizations of Native Americans or his representations of Native American history, customs, and daily life. He spent his childhood in rural Oklahoma—not long removed from being the “Indian country” to which many Eastern tribes and then tribes from the southern plains were forced to relocate—and he received some of his education at a Native American boarding school. As an author, he exhibited a consistent respect for Native American culture and a very complex sense of the effects of contemporary life and cultural oppression on the psyches of individual Native Americans.
Early on, Hillerman was criticized for the pedestrian style of–and sometimes amateurish stylistic lapses in—the narratives. But from the start, he demonstrated a gift for constructing complicated plots and for sustaining suspense. Three of his first four novels featured Joe Leaphorn, a mature, worldly-wise, and somewhat world-weary Navajo detective (the protagonist of the second novel was a journalist). In his fifth novel, Hillerman introduced Jim Chee, a younger officer with the tribal police. Chee is more idealistic than Leaphorn and has more traditional values. Although Hillerman may have shifted to Chee because he had taken Leaphorn as far as he could in the first three Navajo novels, he had also sold the rights to the Leaphorn character. After writing three novels featuring only Chee and buying back the rights to the Leaphorn character, Hillerman paired them in The Skinwalkers. They have proven very complementary as well as enduring characters. While Leaphorn is more intellectual and scientific as an investigator, Chee is more intuitive and impetuous. In The Skinwalkers, a shotgun attack on Chee is connected to a series of other violent incidents seemingly connected to the spirits of dead Navajo. The Skinwalkers was Hillerman’s first bestseller, and just about every subsequent novel featuring the two detectives had equivalent commercial as well as critical success.
Himes, Chester. Blind Man with a Pistol. New York: Morrow, 1969.
In 1928, Chester Himes was convicted of armed robbery, and he was incarcerated in the Ohio State Penitentiary until 1936. The one positive aspect of his prison experience was that he developed an interest in and a commitment to writing, publishing his first stories in national magazines even before he was released. Between 1936 and 1953, he worked a variety of jobs, from waiter to shipyard laborer, in a variety of places, from Cleveland to Los Angeles. At the same time, he wrote the first three of five novels in the naturalistic-social protest tradition brought to new prominence by Richard Wright. In 1953, Himes emigrated to France to escape what he perceived as the pervasive racism of American society. Although he did not find a completely comfortable refuge there, he did begin to write a series of detective novels set in Harlem that have become the main reason for his literary stature.
The Harlem novels feature two police detectives, “Grave Digger” Jones and “Coffin” Ed Johnson, who operate in a milieu in which violence is endemic and has transformed every aspect of behavior and interaction. The novels synthesize the naturalistic and social protest traditions of “serious” literature with the conventions of mystery-detective “popular” fiction. But they also synthesize the conventions of two sub-genres within the mystery-detective genre—the hardboiled detective novel and the police procedural.
Blind Man with a Pistol was republished in paperback as Hot Day, Hot Night, suggesting the difficulties posed by its focal moment, which has become emblematic of Himes’ whole corpus. An African-American man is so tormented by racial prejudice that he is overwhelmed by a psychotic rage. He walks into a subway station, and as passengers are scrambling on and off a train, he opens fire. What makes the scene all the more terrifying is that he is blind and the shootings are thus completely random, completely depersonalized—seemingly fated in their fatality.
Previous Posts in This Series:
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-2: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-1-2/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 3-4: https://academeblog.org/2015/07/02/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-3-4/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 5-6: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/07/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-5-6/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 7-8: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/11/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-7-8/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 9-10: https://academeblog.org/2015/08/18/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-9-10/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 11-12: https://academeblog.org/2015/09/19/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-11-12/
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 13-14: https://academeblog.org/2015/11/15/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-13-14/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 15-16: https://academeblog.org/2016/01/09/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-15-16/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 17-18: https://academeblog.org/2016/04/24/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-17-18/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 19-20: https://academeblog.org/2016/05/20/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-19-20/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 21-22: https://academeblog.org/2016/08/17/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-21-22/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 23-24: https://academeblog.org/2016/08/20/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-23-24/.
Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 25-26: https://academeblog.org/2016/09/09/murder-is-our-peculiar-pastime-fifty-notable-american-crime-novels-25-26/.
The final post in each series is followed by links to all of the previous posts in that series.
National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/
America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/02/13370/