SANTA FE – Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are returning, and an author named Hillerman will be creating the next chapters in their lives.
But this time it will be Anne Hillerman, not her legendary and award-winning father Tony Hillerman, who will chronicle Leaphorn and Chee as they solve new mysteries and expose readers to Navajo culture.
The daughter plans to extend her late dad’s New York Times best-selling, 18-book series of Leaphorn-Chee mysteries with “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” scheduled to be published by HarperCollins in the fall of 2013.
And Anne Hillerman says another character will be getting more page-time in the next book.
When Tony Hillerman finished the 2004 mystery “Skeleton Man” – second to last in the series – Anne was thrilled to see the character Bernadette Manuelito find some stolen diamonds and confront the villain.
“In that book, she really acts like a police officer and not just the love-struck girlfriend of Jim Chee,” she said in an interview from her Santa Fe office.
“But in the end, Jim Chee saves the day. I was sad she had to get rescued. But (Dad) said, ‘I think you’re right. I could do more with her.’”
Her father died in Albuquerque in 2008, leaving a daunting legacy.
The winner of every major award for mystery fiction, including France’s esteemed Grand prix de literature policiere, Tony Hillerman also served as president of the prestigious Mystery Writers of America.
He won that group’s coveted Edgar Award, named in honor of Edgar Allan Poe, and its Grand Master award. A few of his books have been turned into movies, most successfully by PBS and director Chris Eyre, now film chairman at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
Noted for their cultural details, the Hillerman stories take place mostly in the dramatic desert beauty of the Four Corners region.
Publishers translated them into eight languages, including Danish and Japanese, and he received a commendation from the Navajo Tribal Council.
Anne has spent most of her own writing career penning nonfiction, with books such as “Tony Hillerman’s Landscape,” “The Gardens of Santa Fe” and “Santa Fe Flavors.” And she has described Santa Fe’s dining scene as the Journal’s freelance restaurant critic since 2001.
She says she is finally ready to dip her pen into fiction.
Anne crossed the country in 2010-11, giving 50 to 60 talks about her own books and her father. Whether she was in Washington, D.C., or California, someone usually approached her for more.
“People would say to me, ‘Was there another novel in his computer or in a desk drawer?’” she said. “There wasn’t.”
Her father’s fans planted a seed. Anne started writing her own Chee-Leaphorn mystery three years ago.
“I felt like his characters were part of the family,” she said. “I had heard him talk about these guys like they were real guys. It was ‘Leaphorn this’ and ‘Chee that.’”
She admits to a few reservations. She shipped the manuscript off to her father’s old publisher in September. She asked the editor to tell her if she had kept the right tone and remained true to her father’s characters.
Carolyn Marino was Tony Hillerman’s HarperCollins editor from 1990 until his death.
“I knew (Anne) was working on it,” she said. “She and I have stayed in touch.
“I read five pages, and I knew it was just wonderful.”
“Anne is a very fine writer on her own,” Marino continued. “She’s very talented. Anne is also certainly very protective and concerned and aware of the value of protecting her father’s estate and legacy.
“I don’t think anybody could do exactly what Tony Hillerman did,” she said. “His writing was very unique. There’s a beautiful simplicity to his prose.
“But Anne’s book is beautifully written, and it continues the story in a way that Tony’s fans will love.”
She is contracted to write two books.
Anne acknowledged never asking her father for permission to continue the series, but is convinced he would approve. He always took her suggestions seriously.
“He was such an icon,” she said. “There are people who know his work better than I do. Whatever I do, some people will say, ‘This is not Tony Hillerman,’ and it’s not.
“It has to be good enough to stand on its own.”
New book, old villains
She tied the plot of “Spider Woman’s Daughter” into her father’s books by returning to old crimes. It turns out, some of the old villains are still around. Of course, she revisits Leaphorn, Chee and Manuelito.
“Things happen that are inappropriate but not exactly legal,” she said, mysteriously.
She weaves in some Santa Fe art fraud and a return to Chaco Canyon, which was nearly a character in her father’s “Thief of Time.”
“It’s such a mysterious place and it’s such a magical place,” she said.
The book opens at the Navajo Inn at Window Rock, Ariz., where Manuelito – married to Chee in Tony Hillerman’s final mystery in the series, 2006′s “The Shape Shifter” – witnesses the shooting of a police officer. During her investigation, she discovers a fresh body at Chaco Canyon.
New Mexicans will find some familiar landmarks. Both Albuquerque’s University of New Mexico and UNM Hospital appear, as well as Santa Fe’s Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and both the Pacheco Street and Main post offices. She also invented a museum institute, a hybrid between the School for Advanced Research and the Santa Fe Institute.
“Because something bad happens there, I didn’t want to name the real thing,” she said.
Ever the foodie, along the way the author works in Santa Fe’s Jambo Cafe and Flying Tortilla restaurants and turns Chee into a budding cook.
“He’s toying with hamburgers on the grill, and he buys an ice cream maker,” she said.
Marino offered a few suggestions, including an ending re-write, which she had left deliberately ambiguous.
“She said, ‘You don’t want to leave too many broken hearts here.’”
The revision is due by mid-December.
“I really have mixed feelings about it,” Anne acknowledged. “It was something I had to do. I couldn’t let this series end without giving Bernadette the chance to be a hero. You have to take a deep breath and hope for the best.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal