by Marcia Allen, Collection Development
I still miss having a fresh, new Tony Hillerman mystery to read. I never tired of reading the latest adventures of law officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, as they patiently sorted out the facts of murders and thefts that took place in the Southwest. To me, and to so many other long-time fans, the characters and situations that Hillerman so skillfully described in each tale were among the best in American mystery writing.
The range of awards that the author earned was astonishing. The Anthony, the Edgar, the Macavity, and the Nero were among his accolades, some of them received multiple times. And one special honor was earned in 2002 when Hillerman received the Agatha Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement for having written novels in the spirit of Agatha Christie.
While Hillerman died in 2008, the spirit of his creativity lives on. The Tony Hillerman Writers Conference is held each year in Santa Fe, New Mexico during the fall. Workshops led by award-winning writers and promotional activities supporting the writing of any genre are conducted. One of the highlights of the event is the announcement of the year’s Hillerman Prize. The lucky winner has the opportunity to meet the editor of St. Martin’s Press with whom he or she will collaborate on that first novel. The author also wins a cash prize of $10,000.
Among other prize guidelines, the author must have never before written a published mystery or be under contract with a publisher, and the debut mystery must take place in the Southwest. The crime itself must be murder or other serious crimes, with a focus on solution rather than the actual details of the crime.
Which brings me to C.B. McKenzie, the 2013 Hillerman winner. I had never heard of the author, but the bold “Winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize” logo on the cover caught my attention. Bad Country seemed promising, so I began to read of the adventures of Rodeo Grace Garnet, private investigator/warrant server in a desolate corner of Arizona called El Hoyo (The Hole). The action begins when Rodeo discovers the battered body of a Native American near his home. Further investigation reveals a whole string of violent murders, all committed against various tribal members. Told by law enforcement to avoid involvement, Rodeo begins piecing together the similarities of the crimes. Full involvement begins when a grandmother of one of the victims asks for Rodeo’s help, yet she displays no sympathy or compassion toward her deceased grandson.
What makes this mystery one-of-a-kind is a flawed but caring main character. Rodeo has made a lot of mistakes, like his relationship with the treacherous Serena Ray Molina, but he also cares deeply about justice and the victimization of helpless characters like Samuel Rocha. The mystery itself is a complex tale of deception and violence, with a hit-and-run accident that has far-reaching implications. And the ending of the book is explosive. Understated tones and short passages pack a wallop of a finale.
If you like this mystery, you’ll probably want to check out other Hillerman award winners. MPL also has Andrew Hunt’s City of Saints (the 2011 winner). This mystery takes place in Salt Lake City in the 1930s when and unusual pair of crime-solvers must discover the killer of a socialite. Or, you might try the 2010 winner, The Territory by Tricia Fields. This tale explores the nasty interactions between the inhabitants of a West Texas town and violent drug cartel members. The 2008 winner, The Ragged Edge of Nowhere by Roy Chaney, concerns ex-CIA Agent Bodo Hagen, who turns to crime-solving when his brother, who somehow possesses an ancient relic, is murdered in the desert.
So, there you have it. A variety of different styles and storylines that share only a focus on Southwest crime, but each special in its own way. These are, after all, the prestigious winners of the Tony Hillerman Prize.