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.

Tony Hillerman, always at home on the range. (Kelly Campbell/AP)

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

By Denny Drabelle |  October 28, 2008; 9:59 AM ET Dennis Drabelle
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What an honor to get to lunch with him!

I can't think of many story tellers I like more than Hillerman. His mysteries were so full of interesting characters and culture.

Yesterday was a very sad day.

Posted by: RedBird27 | October 28, 2008 12:02 PM

Years ago I attended a writers conference at the Snow King hotel in Jackson. I boarded an elevator before noon along with Tony Hillerman. The elevator started up-- and quit. We rang bells and pushed buttons and nothing happened. We talked about our mutual friend Norman Zollinger. I finally gave up, lost in helplessness, and sat down, while Hillerman stood resolutely staring straight at the control panel. After a half hour, he noticed a small finger hole in the brushed metal, stuck his finger in, and opened up some cowling that hid a telephone. We were rescued minutes later. He was the observant and calm one; I the one lost in hopelessness. He stood there resolutely and saw what I didn't. He was one of the most magnificent novelists of our times, who brought other cultures and other ideals to us as a gift.

Posted by: rwheeler1 | October 29, 2008 7:32 PM

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