From the Case Files of "Weekly Alibi" ...
By Steven Robert Allen
JUNE 29, 1998: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer responsible for Sherlock Holmes, was undeniably a two-bit hack. He didn't have an ear for the rhythms of the English language, his prose was wooden, clumsy and patently unbeautiful. Nor did he have that special sensitivity to the subtleties of human nature that we expect from able fiction writers. Conan Doyle's characters are generally impossibly brilliant or impossibly stupid or impossibly evil.
Yet in some important ways, Conan Doyle's stories deserve their enormous cult following. The best of these tales are pure archetypes of the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes, the misogynistic, introverted, foul-tempered, violin-sawing, cocaine-injecting bastard of Baker Street, is a romantic figure of epic proportions. His renowned observational and deductive skills, combined with his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from chemistry to tattoos to the distinguishing characteristics of various types of tobacco ash, make him a nearly flawless detective. Many readers are attracted to mysteries because they want to emulate that Sherlockian ability to take account of the tiniest details, to make distinctions between relevant and irrelevant facts, to solve critical problems with a superior mind. This is what the best examples of the genre accomplish. They encourage readers to focus their sensitivities and become amateur sleuths in the mysteries of their own existence.
New Mexico currently cultivates its own largish community of mystery writers. Why are there so bloody many here? What is it about the Southwest in particular that lends itself to mystery? You've heard the platitudes. They apply to our fiction as aptly as they apply to our Chamber of Commerce brochures. It's the mysterious light. It's the cryptic, epiphanous desert. It's our touted mix of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo cultures. It's the UFOs. The hippies and freaks. The artists. The wild, wild West. The green chiles.
Whatever the reason, over the past several years, quite a few mystery writers have loaded our unique tri-cultural heritage and our stark yet gorgeous landscapes into their novels. Seems suspicious, doesn't it? Recently Weekly Alibi, with the help of Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, managed to track down three of these writers. After several days of grueling examination under bright lights, we succeeded in coercing damning statements from all three of them. Their sworn affidavits follow.
To a large extent, the question, "Why are there so many mystery writers in the Southwest?" can be answered with this man's name. Tony Hillerman is the granddaddy of the clan. The enormous international success of his mystery series chronicling the adventures of Navajo investigators Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn has encouraged many others to follow in his footsteps. Bring up Tony Hillerman's name with almost any other local mystery writer and more often than not you'll be treated to a lengthy paean to the Master.
Hillerman grew up in a tiny town in the poverty belt of Oklahoma with Native Americans as his neighbors and friends. As a political writer for United Press, he was transferred to Santa Fe in 1952. "It was a very different place back then," he says. "It's not really my kind of town anymore." It's become too artsy and pretentious for his tastes. Hillerman came to Albuquerque in 1963, a place that remains his kind of town. "It's down to earth here, countryish. It's a good old crossroads town, as blue collar as you can get out here in the West."
Hillerman sets his novels primarily in the Four Corners area in Navajo country. He was first drawn to Navajo culture in 1945 when he stumbled upon a curing ceremony for Navajo kids fresh back from the war. The experience stayed with him, and over the years he's worked various aspects of Navajo culture into his fiction. Hillerman put substantial effort into researching the subject, spending a lot of hours in Zimmerman Library at UNM and cross-checking his information with folks on the reservations. "I once had to kill a really good subplot," he says, "when a friend told me that my information was about 40 years out of date." Apparently, he's doing something right. The Navajo Tribe granted him its Special Friend Award, and he's also received an Ambassador Award from The Center for the American Indian.
"Libraries are full of wonderful (nonfiction) books on Native Americans," he says, "but no one reads them. People in the U.S. have a homogenized view of Native Americans. They think they all wear feathers in their hair and carry around tomahawks. But most Americans want to learn more. Jake Page and I and others try to give insight into Indian cultures that outsiders crave."
On the burgeoning population of writers in New Mexico, Hillerman has this to say: "The thing about writers, beyond having to take a vow of poverty, is that they can choose where they live. The smart ones come West to the high, dry country. That's why there's such a proliferation of writers out here. That part's landscape connected. ... If you love the land, then you make it part of your story."
The voice on the answering machine says, "We're out writing stories. Please leave a message, and we'll try to get back to you as soon as possible." This is the Anaya residence, home of local storyteller provocateur Rudolfo Anaya. You know this man. If you haven't read Anaya's masterpiece, Bless Me, Ultima, then you've certainly heard someone gush about it. With that book and others, Anaya long ago secured a position for himself as one of the leading lights of Chicano literature.
A few years ago, Anaya decided to try something new. He began writing books about an Albuquerque private eye named Sonny Baca and his battles with his arch-nemesis, the Raven. Anaya has attempted to craft these books into something that transcends the mystery genre, and by most accounts, he has succeeded by incorporating that elusive, spiritual, poetic quality, steeped in Hispanic tradition, which has made his other books so beloved.
Anaya isn't a mystery fan himself. The series materialized when he thought up the idea for the character of Sonny Baca. Setting out to write a mystery novel per se wasn't part of the plan. "I didn't know much about the mystery genre," Anaya says, "and to tell you the truth, I'm not that interested in genre writing. The problem with genres is that the writing has a tendency to become hackneyed."
With these books, Anaya aims for something more profound than a simple murder mystery thriller. "Sonny Baca books are less about genre," he says, "than they are about Sonny's odyssey through life. It's about the growth of his character and the world of being a curandero, a shaman."
Though he may not be eager to associate his work with a specific genre, Anaya did confess to feeling liberated writing in a mode that is atypical of his previous work. "Yeah, I could let it be a little more plot-based. I could put some more action into the story." He says he tried to leave his readers gasping at the end of chapters to give the story a faster pace. "I let myself be playful and have fun with it."
Yet the driving force of these novels remains Anaya's saturation in Hispanic culture and tradition. "What Sonny finds out is that he's lost touch with his roots," Anaya says. "If he doesn't know his history then he doesn't know himself. ... To have power over his enemy, the Raven, Sonny doesn't need a bigger gun. He needs to know himself and his traditions." As always, the veiled past and the rich traditions Anaya grew up with continue to beat at the heart of his stories.
Jake Page knows his stuff. In the past, he's worked as editor of Natural History and Smithsonian magazines. He's also authored several books on natural history and Native American mythology. His fictional work shows that he can apply this knowledge in remarkably innovative ways. His interest in Native American history, for example, served as the foundation for a couple of alternate history novels, Apacheria and Operation Shatterhand, in which Page depicts the world as it might have been if Indian groups had beaten back their European invaders and created independent nations for themselves in the Southwest.
Page also funnels his expansive knowledge and creativity into a mystery series about an obnoxious blind sculptor with a hideous laugh named Mo Bowdre. Page weaseled into mystery writing after authoring a few articles on stolen Hopi sacred objects. The Hopi tribal chairman at the time asked him if there were any additional way to publicize these cases. Eager to help in any way he could, Page worked these crimes into The Stolen Gods, his first Mo Bowdre novel.
Though the series has been fairly successful, Page expresses some misgivings about writing Southwest mysteries. His experiences in East Coast publishing have given him an awareness of the obstacles local mystery writers face. "Most publishers of (mysteries) are in New York," he says. "The attitude there is that any mystery set in Los Angeles, Florida or New York is mainstream. Any mystery set anywhere else, unless you're Tony Hillerman, is considered regional ... with a regional market."
Still, Page couldn't imagine living and writing anywhere else. He lives in Corrales now, and unless he's kidnapped by Chinese bandits and shipped up the Yangtze to work in rice fields for a cruel rural slave boss with swollen thumbs and a scar over his left eye, he's not leaving anytime soon. "I grew up on the East Coast," Page says, "and chose to live in the Southwest because it's an inspiring place. There's so much going on here." Like most respectable people, Page appreciates New Mexico's cultural mix and the pantheon of bizarre characters who seem to crouch behind every tree. For Page, the Southwest also offers a kind of pleasing, sunny freedom that he hasn't experienced elsewhere. "People here have the attitude that the world is still possible," he says. On the East Coast, people tend to feel that everything has already been tried. There isn't much room to maneuver. Here in New Mexico, Page says, there's still some sense that we can participate in the formation of bold new worlds.
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