The Great Hillerman Writing Legacy

A novelist recalls his mentor and “The Great Taos Bank Robbery.”

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I first met Tony after winning the Tony Hillerman Writing Contest in November 2005—he was writing his 17th novel, and I was struggling with my second. His advice to me at dinner that night was: “Don’t forget to tell a good story; you’ve sat on porches snapping green beans, herded cattle enough times, and have listened to enough stories to know the good ones when you hear them—write those stories.”

As the old saying goes, nature hates a vacuum, and no one understood that as well as Tony Hillerman. New Mexico has its share of open spaces, and those vast and beautiful landscapes sometimes draw in the flotsam and jetsam, the independents who purposefully march to a different drum. Tony knew that the best stories are the ones that happen out on the frontier—not only geographically, but also socially and culturally—and that was where he did some of his finest work. People would sometimes ask him where he got the ideas for his eccentric characters, and the old master would simply smile and say, “It’s possible you’re not from New Mexico, because if you were you wouldn’t ask me that question.”

My grandparents lived in Hobbs, and when I read Tony’s nonfiction, it reminds me of a time before the spit and polish of Southwestern industry rubbed away a lot of the rough edges that made New Mexico more of what it used to be—neither new nor Mexico, but certainly odd. It is one of the things that most influenced me in my own writing career: Tell the stories that haven’t been told, the stories that aren’t likely to end up in the history books, the stories that tell you something about people.

“The Great Taos Bank Robbery,” which was first published in this magazine, in 1970, was one of Tony’s favorites and is also one of mine. It’s a true story, and even if you didn’t know that, it would become evident in the sharp reporter’s eye that was a hallmark of Tony’s writing, a distinct curiosity for the smallest details that reveals a story of charm and dignity that made Tony’s work accessible to all of us. Tony Hillerman loved people, and it showed in his characters, who were drawn with sympathy and a keen perception that encompassed whites, Natives, and even failed, cross-dressing bank robbers.

The title of “The Great Taos Bank Robbery” is accurate in that it took place in a bank in Taos, and it maybe could’ve been great, but it definitely wasn’t much of a robbery. In a story-down-the-lane kind of narrative, Hillerman tells of a phone call received by The New Mexican newspaper office on November 12, 1957, from Mrs. Ruth Fish, indicating that the Taos Bank was about to be robbed. When asked how in the world one might predict such a thing, Mrs. Fish responded that one of the bank robbers was disguised as a woman, was holding a pistol underneath his/her purse, and was patiently waiting with his/her compatriot in the teller line. Mrs. Fish hung up, promising to call back with further details.

If all this seems strange, then it’s possible you’re not from New Mexico, and, more specifically, Taos. The once tiny village north of Santa Fe has long had a reputation for inflating its supposed disasters. For instance, the Great Taos Flood of 1935, the region’s arid climate and lack of river notwithstanding, was actually a three-day drizzle that did have a catastrophic effect—but only on unprepared adobe roofs. It was hardly a flood, and again, hardly great. But in the whimsy that is Taos, stranger things have happened, and usually do.

So, Mrs. Fish called the editor of The New Mexican again to report that the two would-be felons had run from the bank, one awkwardly in a pair of women’s high heels, and gotten away clean, if empty-handed, in a green pickup. Apparently, due to the “full day’s growth of stubble bristling through the one bank robber’s pancake makeup and the unseemly growth of leg hair encased in nylons,” the two had incurred a great deal of interest from the locals, resulting in a full-blown case of stage fright.

It was reported that some of the growing crowd actually giggled, an act that Tony, to his credit, refers to as “churlish.” By this time, one can get the sense and tone of Hillerman’s handiwork, and of the bemused and benevolent eye he cast on humanity.

To add to their frantic fiasco, the two robbers, unused to the short, narrow, crooked streets of Taos, sideswiped the vehicle of a United Brethren minister, who became irate and gave chase. After two or three laps around the village, the robbers, realizing they were not going to elude Godly pursuit, resorted to shooting in the direction of the minister, who, deciding discretion was indeed the better part of valor, called and finally involved the Taos Police; an action that, if you are not from Taos, might seem appropriate.

In an almost helpful, how-to manner, Hillerman introduces the bank robbers’ level of proficiency by mentioning that they had borrowed the truck in order to rob the bank a day earlier, only to be thwarted in their attempts by Veterans Day, a national bank holiday that any professional set of bandits might have taken into account.

To tell you how the story ends would be, to risk hyperbole, criminal, but to tell you the truth, the story is secondary to the masterful quality of its telling. It is the amity and kindness of heart that are the essentials of this Hillerman classic, illustrating that he was a writer who wrote of his fellow man, both good and bad, with empathy and unflinching analysis, never striking a false note.

Tony loved illustrating the complexities and emotional challenges that result in people simply being who they are, with all their amusing failings. It is this spirit that characterizes “The Great Taos Bank Robbery”—as a matter of fact, it is this quality that is the hallmark of all of Tony’s work. If nature in fact hates a vacuum, she also certainly loved Tony Hillerman.

Now writing my ninth novel in the Walt Longmire series, and watching Warner Bros. and A&E film the television adaptation in New Mexico, I am constantly reminded of the effect that Tony Hillerman had on my writing career, and always pleased when people tell me that my books remind them of the old master’s.