Fans of the Leaphorn/Chee mystery novels will soon have another story to add to their collections: Author Anne Hillerman will continue the series with “The Tale Teller,” scheduled to be released April 9.
Anne Hillerman, daughter of late mystery writer Tony Hillerman, who died in 2008, picked up where her father left off with the mystery series, starting with her novel, “Spider Woman’s Daughter,” released in 2013. The stories are set on the Navajo Reservation and feature Lt. Joe Leaphorn and his colleague officer Jim Chee. Tony Hillerman began the series in 1970 with the novel “The Blessing Way.”
In “The Tale Teller,” Leaphorn, who has retired from the tribal police, takes a job investigating a missing biil, a traditional dress that had been donated to the Navajo Nation. At the same time, Chee and officer Bernie Manuelito are investigating a series of burglaries and a body that turns up along a running trail. As the three conduct their investigations, the cases begin to merge and ... well, no spoilers here.
While there are plenty of books in the Leaphorn/Chee series, both by Tony and Anne Hillerman, Anne said it’s not crucial for readers to have read all of the books in order to follow along with “The Tale Teller.” In fact, she said she crafts each story to be able to stand on its own and provide readers with a satisfying experience.
“My goal in writing each book is that anybody can pick it up and read it and then maybe they’ll think, ‘Well, gee, I’d like to read more.’ And then maybe they’ll go back and read my earlier ones, and perhaps even read my dad’s books,” she said. “Or, if they’ve started, say, with ‘Spider Woman’s Daughter,’ the first in my series, then they would go on and read all the others.”
Hillerman, who lives in Santa Fe, said that as a former journalist, making the decision to pick up the series where her father left off was challenging, but it wasn’t something she couldn’t handle; before taking over Leaphorn/Chee, she had already written a book. For the series, she said she had to learn how to write a mystery novel; figuring out how to build characters and maintain suspense.
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I had never written a novel, so part of what I was doing was learning how to write a novel when I wrote the first one,” she said “But I had done a nonfiction book, and I had finished it and was just kind of dealing with the editor on corrections and changes and all that stuff when my dad died. I think having worked on that book really set the stage for me then to move on and to write the novels.”
She said to help get started, she re-read all of her father’s books, and she and her husband also traveled to many of the sites Tony Hillerman had written about to familiarize themselves with the Navajo Nation and to meet people and get a feeling for the real landscape in which her father set his stories.
It’s this Southwest landscape that motivates her to continue writing books in the series, Anne Hillerman said.
“I have so many stories buzzing around in my head. When I decided to continue the series, I thought it would be great to take readers to places on the Navajo Nation that they may have not ever seen or been to or even thought about,” she said. “There are so many wonderful scenic locations, so that’s another thing that keeps me coming back. I want to have time to explore those.”
Plus, she said, she’s interested to see what’s going to happen to Manuelito, a strong female character, now that she is working her way up to being a full-fledged detective.
“Is she actually going to apply to be a criminal investigator with the Navajo police? Is the FBI going to offer her a job because she’s so smart? Or, is she going to decide that the demands of helping with her mom and her sister’s craziness, and being married that all of that might lead her to cut back a little bit on the work and spend more time focused on family issues,” she said. “I’m just kind of trying to see what’s in store for her.”
And as she continues writing, Hillerman said one of the things she misses most about her father is being able to ask him for his advice about stories she’s working on.
“I would say at this point, I really miss having him here to say, ‘So, what do you think about Bernie now being a full-fledged crime-solver?’ And when I get to one of those stuck places, it would just be great to call him up and say, ‘So, if this was your book, what would you do here?’” she said.
Now that “The Tale Teller” is about to be released, Hillerman is on to her next novel, a story that will be set on the Alamo Reservation near Socorro, New Mexico.