Tony Hillerman, 83, dies; bestselling mystery author provided insight into the native people and culture of the Southwest

Bestselling author Tony Hillerman began writing his contemporary mystery novels set in the Navajo region of the Southwest, in part, he once said, because “they have a fascinating religious philosophy and a lot of good values.”

And, he told Newsweek magazine in 1989, “they’re the very bottom of the pecking order among Indian tribes out here. They’re the country bumpkins. And I’ve always identified with that.”

The critically acclaimed author, whose mysteries featured two Navajo tribal policemen and were known for providing insight into the native people and culture of the Southwest, died Sunday. He was 83.

Hillerman, who had been in declining health in recent years, died of pulmonary failure at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, said his daughter, Anne Hillerman.

Beginning with “The Blessing Way,” published in 1970 and introducing Lt. Joe Leaphorn of the Navajo Tribal Police, Hillerman wrote 18 novels featuring Leaphorn and the younger officer Jim Chee and set in the sprawling Navajo region of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

The longtime Albuquerque resident, whose novels were known for their atmospheric blend of contemporary crime and traditional tribal beliefs and customs, remained something of a critically acclaimed cult favorite until his 1986 novel “Skinwalkers” propelled him onto bestseller lists and his mysteries, including “A Thief of Time,” began selling millions of copies.

His legion of fans included Robert Redford, who acquired the film rights to Hillerman’s mystery series and executive-produced “The Dark Wind,” which was released in Britain in 1992, and others for PBS.

Hillerman, whose novels have been published in more than 30 languages, received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1991.

And, in 2005, he received the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes’ Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement for having “reinvented the mystery novel as a venue for the exploration and celebration of Native American history, culture and identity.”

As a writer, Hillerman was known for what Newsweek magazine in 1989 referred to as his brilliant “evocation of nature and place -- particularly the desolation of the Southwest.” And in “examining the pain of cultural clashes,” the magazine noted, “he creates morality plays that are as subtly colored as their landscape.”

“I want to write an entertaining book,” Hillerman told Newsweek, “and I’d like people to see the strength and dignity of a culture I admire.”

Otto Penzler, owner of Mysterious Bookshop in New York City and founder of Mysterious Press, said Monday that before Hillerman, “nobody had written about American Indians in any meaningful way, approaching them not only as sympathetic characters but as intelligent, cultured, wise and decent human beings the same way that people would look at people of any other race.”

“He had a very colorful way of showing Indian culture, Navajo culture in particular.”

Carolyn Marino, Hillerman’s editor at HarperCollins, said setting was so strong in each of Hillerman’s mystery novels “that it almost becomes a character.”

He also creates very vivid, very compassionate characters,” she said. “These are mystery novels, and yet I think Tony transcended the mystery field. I think readers who may not read a lot of other mystery writers, read Tony.”

In 1987, Hillerman received the “Special Friend of the Dineh” award -- dineh means “the people” in Navajo -- for his “accurate and sensitive portrayal of the strength and dignity of traditional Navajo culture.”

“It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures,” Hillerman once told Publishers Weekly. “I think it’s important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways.”

One of three children, Hillerman was born May 27, 1925, in the tiny farm town of Sacred Heart, Okla.

Hillerman, whose father was a farmer and general store operator, developed an early respect for Native American culture.

Instead of attending the town’s single-teacher public school, his parents sent him to St. Mary’s Academy, a school for Native American girls; he then went to high school with other Native American children.

He briefly attended what is now Oklahoma State University before enlisting in the Army during World War II. Injured by a mine while serving in combat in Europe, he returned home with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.

He never considered becoming a writer until a newspaper reporter did a feature story on him. His mother had let the reporter read the letters he had written home, and the reporter was so impressed she told him he should become a writer.

He earned a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma, where he met and married his wife, Marie, with whom he raised six children, five of them adopted.

His career in journalism included a stint with United Press International, which brought him and his family to New Mexico in the early 1950s.

He was executive editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican in 1962 when he quit to become assistant to the president of the University of New Mexico, where he enrolled in graduate school.

After earning a master’s in English literature, he joined the journalism faculty at the university and taught there until the early 1980s.

But, as he told the Deseret News in 1997, “I always wanted to be an author and try my hand at fiction. I kind of wanted to be known as a writer, have a notch on my gun.”

Believing a mystery novel would be easier than attempting to write the Great American Novel his first time out, he wrote “The Blessing Way.”

On its way to publication in 1970, Hillerman received a less-than-flattering critique from a literary agent who suggested he rewrite the novel and “get rid of the Indian stuff.”

Of his second novel, “The Fly on the Wall,” published in 1971 and featuring a newspaper reporter facing a moral dilemma, he told the Palm Beach Post in 2002: “I liked it OK, but it wasn’t an important book. It wasn’t as good as I intended it to be.”

He returned to Navajo country and Leaphorn for his next novel, “Dance Hall of the Dead.” Published in 1973, it won an Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

“He had a huge following as a writer,” said Maureen Walters, his literary agent for some 30 years.

“I can remember going to the 92nd Street Y here in New York where you have a lot of literary events, and it was standing room only,” she said. “And there were people who came up to him afterward asking him to autograph books and they came with cartons of his books. They brought every book that Tony had ever written; we actually had to stop them at some point.”

But Hillerman, she said, “was very humble about his success.”

“He’d tell me about getting together with his friends and having their poker night and things like that, so his success was sort of not as important to him as to others.”

Bill Buchanan, a longtime friend, described Hillerman in a 2004 interview with the Albuquerque Tribune as “just an old Okie boy, a common, old shoe and self-effacing type of individual.

“When lightning struck and he made millions, he was still buying $12 shoes and $9 fishing rods. He hasn’t changed one bit.”

Hillerman’s autobiography, “Seldom Disappointed,” was published in 2001. His most recent mystery was “The Shape Shifter,” published in 2006.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife of 60 years, Marie; five other children, Jan Grado, Monica Atwell, Tony Hillerman Jr., Steve Hillerman and Daniel Hillerman; 10 grandchildren; and his sister, Margaret Mary Chambers.

A funeral Mass for him will be held at10:30 a.m. Friday at Our Lady of the Annunciation, 2621 Vermont N.E., Albuquerque.

McLellan is a Times staff writer.