The Frail but Vibrant Tony Hillerman
Three or four years ago, I had the privilege of lunching with Tony Hillerman, the great writer of mysteries set in the Navajo country of the Southwest, who died last Sunday at age 83. It came about by accident: I was on hand at the National Book Festival to introduce mystery authors, and although Tony wasn't among "my" writers (he'd brought along his favorite introducer, a bookstore owner from his part of the country, to do the honors), we had chatted briefly, and I think he was pleased when I expressed my admiration for The Great Taos Bank Robbery, a collection of his early nonfiction pieces. When we met again in the hospitality tent, where a lunch buffet was spread out, we found a table together.
What I remember most vividly about that lunch was the contrast between Tony's physical frailty and his almost nonchalant conviction that he was going to write another mystery. He might be rickety on his pins, but he had a plot all laid out (something about a terrorist attack on a utility). Naturally, I kept my misgivings to myself: the frail fellow sitting across from me didn't seem likely to last long enough to finish another book. But I'm glad to say I was wrong. Tony wrote that novel, and another one after it, and also co-edited a strapping anthology, The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories (with Rosemary Herbert).
The great difference between the old and the young doesn't lie in stamina or physique or health. It's a condition of the spirit, a tendency among the old to have run out of dreams. Tony Hillerman broke the rule that the elderly are washed up. At the time of our lunch, he still had books in him, and I have little doubt that he died with yet more waiting to be born.
-- Dennis Drabelle
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