His numerous best-selling mystery novels about two Navajo policemen, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, portrayed the American Indians of the Southwest with accuracy, color and affection. Hillerman, who died Oct. 26 at 83, was the first popular author to consistently write about the Navajo as fully rounded characters. Over 18 novels, starting with 1970's The Blessing Way, he portrayed the Navajo with good traits and bad, as heroic and villainous, just as novelists had written about people of other races and cultures. He understood that Navajo are not the primitives depicted in old western movies, and he wanted his readers to recognize that they were as complex and sophisticated as the people of any other heritage.
Tony Hillerman won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the Best Novel of the year (Dance Hall of the Dead) in 1974, and in 1991 he received the highest award the organization can bestow: the title Grand Master for lifetime achievement. Yet the honor that brought him greatest pleasure was given to him by the Navajo Tribal Council when they named him a Special Friend of the Dineh (Navajo).
After more than three decades of critical acclaim and many visits to the best-seller list, Hillerman had a favorite anecdote, often repeated. It was about his first agent, who told him that if he wanted to have success as a writer, he'd have to get rid of "all that Indian stuff."
Penzler is proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City