So begins The Sinister Pig (2003) by the late Tony Hillerman, famed mystery writer of the Southwest. The beginning is very simple–a man hands an envelope across the table of a small cafe. The setting is Navajo Country but it could be anywhere, anytime. How mundane. How ordinary. How easy to read. This vintage Tony Hillerman beginning fascinates me–it’s deceptively simple. By the end of the first page, we are in the midst of a high-level corruption and mysterious intrigue. In my book readings at the Sonoma County libraries on October 14th, November 2nd and 5th, I’ll be talking about this and other beginnings of Tony Hillerman mysteries.
How apt, how perfectly Tony Hillerman’s titles reflect the themes too–By page 9 of Sinister Pig we learn that the term comes from “porc sinistre”, a French phrase for “the boss pig in the sty–the one that would guard the trough and attack any animal that tried to steal a bite.” So how does the title fit in? The man who takes the envelope is someone Slate plans to hire, an ex-CIA agent whose job will be to sniff out who is syphoning oil from a pipeline system, thereby bypassing paying the $40 billion dollars in royalty money into the Interior Department’ trust fund for the Indians.
Ahh, now we know what’s in the trough and who profits by it–the federal government and those underlings who work it. We also know who doesn’t profit–another telling Hillerman theme–Native American history. Not to mention his knack for describing the big picture and the lay of contemporary United States of America where power (and crime) reside with the wealthy and their dishonest corporation underlings, and where the “War on Drugs” means war on its victims and “Protecting the Border” means hoarding the trough of addiction.
The envelope the man hands across the table is full of papers documenting a forged identity for the soon-to-be ex-CIA agent. We only know him by his assumed name. But don’t worry, we needn’t remember it because, even with his past experience and the fifty thousand Slate transferred to a forged bank account to bankroll him, it isn’t enough to prevent this agent from being murdered by the end of the first chapter.
Which brings me to another characteristic of Tony Hillerman–murder is executed in the blink of an eye, a turn of the sentence, almost a bloodless and ghostly affair. I’ll be talking about his depiction of crime, murder and its victims too.
Now let’s look at his characters. They’re all familiar to us–Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, the retired “legendary lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn, and Chee’s down-in-the mouth girlfriend, Bernadette Manuelito, who has recently taken a job as a Customs Control Officer, posted on the Border to Mexico just to get away from Chee. Hillerman’s characters are like family–quirky, stubborn, true-to-life, and long-suffering. Mostly they’re downright sympathetic. After all, we know them well and we’re rooting for them. We believe he is rooting for them too.
In an organic way, The Sinister Pig promotes Native American values through the characters and also through the action; but how many of us know what these values are? The climax of my novel Sundagger.net happens during a vision quest in New Mexico, but I myself didn’t really understand how Native American tribes of the Southwest would view a vision quest ceremony until Tony Hillerman advised me in his letters. At the library event, I’ll be reading scenes from Sundagger.net that illustrate how I made use of his advice.
Then there are all those other Tony Hillerman themes: his sonorous desert landscapes, the technical specifics of industries such as natural gas and oil, all those pipelines, and his stylistic brilliance in using metaphor, understatement and cryptic dialogue to further an increasingly complex plot. We can talk about this in The Sinister Pig and other Hillerman novels.
So come join me at a Sonoma library and bring your favorite book or excerpt. Read a paragraph or two aloud. The anniversary of his death is coming up this month. Let’s all enjoy and commemorate Tony Hillerman together.