A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review by Marcia Muller:


TONY HILLERMAN – Dance Hall of the Dead. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1973. Paperback: Avon, 1975. Many reprint editions, both hardcover and soft.

TONY HILLERMAN Dance Hall of the Dead

   Tony Hillerman is a master storyteller, the kind who can spin you a yarn that will keep you on the edge of your chair replete with ghosts, evil spirits, sinister happenings, legends, and all the other ingredients that make up the culture of a people.

   The people he writes of are the Navajo and Zuni Indians of the American Southwest. His books are full of Indian lore. (Hillerman himself went to an Indian boarding school for eight years, and knows the culture as few Anglos do.)

   Set against the vast and often desolate expanse of the great reservations near Four Corners (where the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado abut one another), they re-create the loneliness of the high mesas.

   If life is hard for those who live there, it is also hard for Hillerman’s heroes tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and, in more recent books, Jim Chee. There are no instant backup systems on the mesas, no quick computerized information resources, indeed few methods of communication.

   Alone, the protagonists must rely on their own intelligence, good judgment, and instincts that have been passed down in a society almost as old as the ancient land where it sprang up.

TONY HILLERMAN Dance Hall of the Dead

   Dance Hall of the Dead (which won the MWA Edgar for Best Novel of 1973) opens, as a number of Hillerman’s books do, with a scene from the life of a resident of the reservation, in this case a Zuni.

   And immediately we are confronted with one of the numerous contrasts between modern and an ancient culture that are a trademark of Hillerman’s work: “Shulawitsi, the Little Fire God, member of the Council of the Gods and Deputy to the Sun, had taped his track shoes to his feet.”

   The Little Fire God is a young Zuni man in training not for a track meet but for a religious ceremony. As he rests, thinking of many things that disturb him (but not allowing himself to become angry because at this time in the Zuni religious calendar, anger is not permitted), a strange figure appears from behind a boulder….

   Now that we have been drawn into the Indian consciousness, the scene switches to Zuni tribal-police headquarters where Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is being briefed on a jurisdictional problem. The Little Fire God, in ordinary life Ernesto Cata, and his Navajo friend, George Bowlegs, are missing, and there are indications that one of them has been knifed. While Cata’s disappearance is in Zuni jurisdiction, Leaphorn is asked to find Bowlegs.

TONY HILLERMAN Dance Hall of the Dead

   Cata is presumed dead, and the police suspect Bowlegs is his killer. But there are also rumors that a kachina a Zuni ancestor spirit got Cata and frightened Bowlegs. When Cata’s body is found, Leaphorn’s search intensifies; and as he crosses the rugged reservation, fact becomes mixed with legend, and Leaphorn, an outsider to the Zuni culture, must sort out the reality of the situation.

   Dance Hall of the Dead is a fascinating study in the conflicts between two Indian cultures, as well as a fine mystery, the scenes and characters of which will haunt you for a long time after you reach its conclusion.

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   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.

TONY HILLERMAN, R.I.P. The much loved author of the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries died October 26 of pulmonary failure. He was 83. See the The Rap Sheet online for more details and many remembrances.