A long-ago plane crash inspires Tony Hillerman's new mysteryThere is a sense of symmetry as I sit in a cozy cabin overlooking the Grand Canyon's Bright Angel Trail and begin collating the notes of my interview with Southwestern mystery author Tony Hillerman. Hillerman's latest novel, Skeleton Man, takes place in the Grand Canyon, reuniting veteran Native American policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee for an investigation into the aftermath of a plane crash, the worst airline disaster of its day, which took place more than 40 years before. Among the victims was a diamond dealer carrying a briefcase full of diamonds, one of which has recently surfaced in a local crime.
It's another fascinating scenario from Hillerman, an Oklahoma native and longtime journalist who launched his Native American mystery series in 1970 with the publication of The Blessing Way. Since then, he has turned out 15 more Navajo mysteries, as well as several other novels, nonfiction books about the West, essay collections and a memoir. From his home in Albuquerque, Hillerman talked to BookPage about his long career and his new book. What was intended as a short interview turned into an hour-long conversation on a variety of topics, ranging from Grand Canyon history to homeland security, only a small portion of which are covered here. BookPage: Can you tell us a bit about the 1956 airline crash over the Grand Canyon that plays a pivotal role in Skeleton Man?Tony Hillerman: Sure. The crash took place on June 30, 1956. Two planes were involved, a United Airlines DC-7 and a TWA Constellation. There has been speculation that one of the passengers requested that the pilot turn the plane a bit to afford a better view of the canyon, but I think that is largely speculation. In any event, there was a midair crash, and 128 passengers and crew were killed. It actually caused the FAA to revamp their regulations regarding airspace usage, regulations that remain in place to this day.
BP : You've summoned Joe Leaphorn out of retirement to take part in Skeleton Man. Are there any parallels between Leaphorn and yourself in this regard?TH: [laughs] I am 82 years old. I imagine that I will keep on writing as long as anyone wants to keep reading. In fact, Leaphorn figures quite prominently in my upcoming novel [a follow-up to Skeleton Man], which will tie up some loose ends such as the ongoing romance between Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito.
BP: Jim Chee is, as you say, something of a romantic, while Joe Leaphorn is a bit of a pragmatist by comparison. Do you identify more with one than the other?TH: I would say that Leaphorn is more an extension of my personality than Chee. He is closer to me in age and attitude, and he can be a bit grouchy from time to time.
BP: Your books are icons of mystery fiction; you have virtually invented the subgenre of Native American mysteries. How do you account for their ongoing popularity?TH: You write for two people, yourself and your audience, who are usually better educated and at least as smart. But an author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place. You try to create characters who invite a strong reaction from readers, whether pity, contempt, empathy, whatever.
BP: A number of television adaptations of your Leaphorn/Chee novels have been aired over the past few years. What is your reaction to seeing your characters on the big (or small) screen?TH: Well, Wes Studi [who plays Joe Leaphorn in PBS adaptations] is perfect. In fact, when an image of Joe Leaphorn crosses my mind, it is Wes Studi's face I see. Adam Beach [who plays Jim Chee] is an excellent actor as well, but much too handsome. BP: This has nothing whatsoever to do with the current book, but Finding Moon, the tale of an average fellow who goes to Vietnam to discover what has happened to his missing brother, has always been a particular favorite of mine. Can you give us some insight into how that book came about?TH: [laughs again] Well, you certainly know the right questions to ask! Finding Moon is a favorite of mine as well. It would have been my first book. It was originally set in the Belgian Congo during their civil war in the aftermath of the Belgian armed forces' pullout. What with work and family obligations, I wasn't able to get it finished quickly, and then the situation changed in the Belgian Congo, rendering some of my plot ideas unworkable. I kept it on a shelf for all those years, and was able to rework the bones of the story using Vietnam as the geographic focal point. Although I wasn't able to get a visa for Vietnam, I was able to talk with swift boat veterans and others to get a feel for the time and place, and I visited a tropical prison in the Philippines to get a sense of what a Vietnamese prison might have been like.
BP: Now that I've posed a number of questions that either I or our readers were curious about, is there anything that you would like to add?TH: Well, I have another new book called Kilroy Was There. It was published by Kent State University as a World War II memorial. I was asked to write the text for the book, but I replied that I was "much too busy." Then I saw some of the photographs by Frank Kessler and I knew I had to do it. The photos depict down-and-dirty street fighting, the realities of war with no sugarcoating or romanticizing.