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In praise of Tony Hillerman

Santa Fe author James McGrath Morris, seen here at work in 2015 at the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library, will give a talk about late New Mexico mystery writer and journalist Tony Hillerman during the Historical Society of New Mexico History Conference in Albuquerque this week. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — James McGrath Morris, himself an award-winning author, is unflinching in his praise of late New Mexico mystery novelist and journalist Tony Hillerman.

“I think he is under appreciated,” Morris, 64, said during a recent phone interview from a vacation home in Colorado. “He used the genre of mysteries to unravel the mysteries of the Navajo people for the world. He (revealed) who the Navajo people are and what their culture is all about, making them perhaps the best understood American tribe in the world.”

Hillerman, who died in Albuquerque in 2008 at the age of 83, is best known for his 18 mysteries featuring the exploits of Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, books that earned him Edgar Allan Poe and Grandmaster awards from the Mystery Writers of America and Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement from the Western Writers of America, among other honors.

But before he turned to fiction, Hillerman, a native of Sacred Heart, Okla., was a wire-service and newspaper reporter and a University of New Mexico journalism teacher, serving both as chairman of UNM’s journalism department and faculty adviser for the student-operated newspaper, the New Mexico Daily Lobo.

On Friday afternoon, during the Historical Society of New Mexico conference at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Spa, Morris will give a presentation titled “Tony Hillerman and New Mexico Journalism.”

“It’s about how Hillerman shaped New Mexico journalism as executive editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican and as chairman of a growing journalism program at UNM,” Morris said. “And how his journalism shaped his novels, partly in how he wrote them but also some of the novels’ themes. ‘The Fly on the Wall,’ his second novel, comes out of an actual corruption case in New Mexico.”

Big on bios

More than 70 speakers will present programs at the Historical Society of New Mexico conference Thursday through Saturday. Topics range from “Balloons, A-Bombs, and Flying Saucers: Project Mogul and the Roswell Incident” to “Raiding Along the Camino Real: A 1754 Incident.”

Tony Hillerman was not only a best-selling mystery writer but also a wire-service and newspaper reporter and a much-respected journalism teacher at the University of New Mexico. (Journal File)

Morris does his presentation about Hillerman during a session that includes two other talks and runs from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Friday in Embassy Suites room Sandia VI. Each of the three lectures in the session is about 20 minutes long with additional time provided for questions and answers.

One thing Morris may talk about is Hillerman’s “droll” sense of humor, perhaps best expressed in “The Great Taos Bank Robbery,” the title piece in a collection of true stories published in 1973.

It’s about a bank robbery attempt gone awry.

“He wrote it first as a straight news piece at the New Mexican and expanded it later into the story that appeared in the book,” Morris said. “It’s so funny, in an understated fashion, one could think it had been written by Mark Twain. In the novels he went on to write, he often included a tidbit of droll understatement.”

A Santa Fe resident, Morris is writing a biography of Hillerman, which is due to be published by the University of Oklahoma Press in the next year or two. He has already written “Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars,” “The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism,” “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power,” “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press” and “The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War.”

His book about Ethel Payne won the 2015 Benjamin Hooks National Book Prize for best work in civil rights history. And he is this year’s winner of the BIO Award, presented by the Biographers International Organization for contributions to the art of biography.

A nose for news

As the list of his published works indicates, Morris is drawn to journalism. A native of Washington, D.C., he worked as a radio reporter in Albuquerque in the late 1970s before leaving to cover state politics in Jefferson City, Mo., for the Missouri Radio Network. Later he covered government in D.C. for various radio networks and newspapers and worked on the staff of a paper in Ithaca, N.Y.

He is hesitant to name his favorite Hillerman novel, but when pressed he goes with 1971’s “The Fly on the Wall,” which is not one of the Navajo Tribal Police mysteries. The lead character in “The Fly on the Wall” is John Cotton, a newspaper reporter.

“I guess I love ‘The Fly on the Wall’ as a man who has spent time as a journalist,” Morris said. In fact, he liked it enough to send Hillerman a fan letter about it.

Hillerman moved to New Mexico in 1952 to work for the wire service United Press (later United Press International). He joined the staff of the New Mexican in 1954 and worked his way up to executive editor of the paper.

“Stories he covered in New Mexico, debates over the use of peyote by the Native American Church, for example, got into his novels,” Morris said. “The plot in ‘The Fly on the Wall’ comes from a story about several (New Mexico) highways that were being built with substandard concrete. Highways began to disintegrate rapidly and there was money to be shared by state officials.”

Alvis was smiling faintly now, understanding it, looking at Cotton with approval. He laughed. ‘The son-of-a-*** is shorting enough cement out of the highway job to handle the resort construction. Getting paid for it twice.”

A future in fiction

Morris said Hillerman’s news writing can be read as a prophesy of his future as a novelist.

“You could see that he had literary aspirations, more than deadline journalism,” he said. “He was particularly good at place setting.”

That’s apparent in his novels, such as this passage from 1970’s “The Blessing Way” the first of the Navajo mystery novels.

The highway skirted the immense, lifeless depression which falls away into the Biz-E-Ahi and Nazlini washes. It was lit now by the sunset, a fantastic jumble of eroded geological formations. The white man sees the desolation and calls it a desert, McKee thought, but the Navajo name for it means “Beautiful Valley.”

“His wanderings around the state as a UP and later a New Mexican reporter led to those wonderful descriptions,” Morris said.

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