Tony Hillerman is a writer who nearly slipped past me. He was a bestseller in my teenage years and I have always had a slight bias against the big sellers because I thought, and rightly so in many cases, that their fiction was overstuffed and vapid. But Tony Hillerman’s fiction certainly does not fall in that category. It is both lively and interesting—very, very interesting. His work deserved to be a bestseller because he was a damn fine writer, which should be a requirement to finding a place on the lists.
I recently read one of his early novels, The Fly on the Wall, originally published in 1971 by Harper & Row. It is the first Hillerman novel I have read that didn’t star either (or both) Jim Chee or Joe Leaphorn and I really enjoyed it. The protagonist is a political writer for the Tribune named John Cotton. The location is never fully identified, but the descriptions and climate make it seem like an Eastern state, maybe, probably, a place like Virginia.
It opens with Cotton writing his column, an hour or so before deadline, when a jubilantly drunk colleague interrupts him with the news that he has a huge story about the state governor’s office. Cotton doesn’t pay much attention, but a few minutes later the man falls to his death in the state capitol building. He doesn’t really make any connections there either, except that his reporter’s instinct makes him curious about the story. Then things start to happen that make Cotton more and more curious.
The Fly on the Wall is a whodunit with enough intrigue and action to make it more akin to an American-style crime novel than the old British Agatha Christie-style mystery. It is plotted with a precision that only solid and professional whodunits are, but it is also filled with suspense and, in a few scenes, violence—not just the hint of violence, but actual violence. There is one scene in particular that lifts this novel above most in the category; a scene just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico (in the only chapter of the novel that the protagonist is outside the bleak wintery locale of his newspaper job) that is a beautifully rendered chase scene. It is a scene that could have been lifted from an early David Morrell novel, but at the same time it is all Tony Hillerman.
The novel has a sense of reality to it. Mr Hillerman was a newspaperman, and the book acts as a guide to what the industry must have been like in the 1960s and 70s, particularly what it must have been like to be a political reporter: the deals and counter-deals; trying to report factually while also not angering the politicians enough to freeze you out; the jaded cynicism matched against the idealistic sentiment of the job.
The Fly on the Wall was, according the Wikipedia, Hillerman’s second novel, but it doesn’t feel like the work of a man learning his trade. It is full-bodied and has sense of importance. It is as fresh today as it was when it was first published. In fact as I read it, it felt as though it was written yesterday, and I bet the same will be true in ten years and then again in another ten.
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