A while ago, I wrote a blog mourning the passing of Tony Hillerman (9/25/12) and how, unlike him, many writers of mystery novels give us complex plots but protagonists with little depth. They forget readers have to care about their sleuths, enough to make them flinch when the door to a dark corridor slams behind the protagonist. To make them care, they must know something of the character: emotions, thoughts and yes, flaws.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said a fully developed character was necessary for a book’s success. Agatha Christie’s detectives have little depth. Miss Marple can be relied upon to make some connection between the body in the drawing room and a gardener she once employed, a connection that turns out to be revealing. Poirot lectures incessantly to his sidekick, Hasting, about the importance of using one’s “little grey cells.” But beyond his vanity, we know little about him.
Christie isn’t the worst offender. P. D. James’ detective, Dalgliesh, is so flat, his entire character could be slipped beneath a locked door.
That these mystery writers should be the spawn of Edgar Allen Poe, often credited with having perfected the mystery formant, is itself a mystery. If there was anyone who mastered the art of internal monologue, it’s he. Think of “Tell Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and my meaning is obvious.
Happily, Tony Hillerman never forgot his duty to his characters and his readers. He gave his detectives, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, rounded personalities. Leaphorn is methodical, introspective and likes to stick pins in crime maps to look for patterns. He grieves for a wife lost to cancer and stumbles in his attempts to find happiness with another woman. Chee, a younger man, is torn between his respect for his superior officer and the irritation he feels when that officer “meddles.” A bachelor, Chee’s love interests leave him insecure and lonely. By such foibles we come to know both men.
Fortunately, Hillerman’s death isn’t the end of his characters. Hillerman’s daughter, Anne, has stepped in to fill the void, writing her first novel in her father’s series with seamless skill. Nonetheless, she dares to add touches that leave the reader wanting more. In Spider Woman’s Daughter, A. Hillerman shows the same respect for Indian lore and culture that was the hallmark of her father’s writing. But a new character emerges: officer Bernadette Manuelito. She’s Jim Chee’s new wife and eager to make her mark on the force. In their first adventure together, she joins Chee as he tracks Leaphorn’s would-be killer while the older detective lies comatose in the local hospital, having been shot. Partners in work as well as in life, Manuelito must be sensitive to her husband’s feelings as they follow a thorny trail. He isn’t her only challenge. Her mother is frail and in need of care, but her younger sister chooses life on the wild side.
When A. Hillerman’s introduces a woman as a central character, it follows that Jim Chee must change, too. No longer a lonely bachelor, he is open with his wife, encourages her in her work and displays affection. He has a feminine side and we like him all the better for it. I suspect Anne Hillerman’s father would approve.
(Originally posted 10/19/17)
*Anne Hillerman has a new book coming out soon.