Five Mysteries to Read While in Northern Arizona

If you travel through Northern Arizona, especially on the Navajo Reservation, some of the best reading material to bring with you are Tony Hillerman's books. There is probably no other mystery writer with such a deep respect and understanding of the land and the people of his settings than Hillerman. Reading his novels while traveling through the places they are set will give you a better understanding of the high deserts and mountains of Northern Arizona and the Four Corners region, as well as of the people who inhabit them.

The Shape Shifter

If you start your trip in Flagstaff, a great murder mystery to read is The Shape Shifter. Some of the book is set there, and you will recognize the areas it talks about as you drive through town. If you leave Flagstaff, and drive into the Navajo Reservation, even on the seemingly desolated roads, you'll recognize more of the sites from the story.

A few different murders, a theft, and mainly a mystery involving a very old Navajo rug, turn out to be connected and solved in the end by the retired Navajo tribal officer, Joe Leaphorn. While following the leads and solving the mystery along with Leaphorn, you learn about the Navajo way of life, some of their history and mythology, as well as about the landscape that is so crucial to all of the stories.
Published in 2006, and a New York Times bestseller, winning the "Best Western Short Novel" award in 2007, The Shape Shifter is Hillerman's last novel, and one of his best.

Skeleton Man

Your next stop through the region will probably be the Grand Canyon. There is a Hillerman mystery set here, as well, although you'd have to go into the canyon to really experience the setting of Skeleton Man. Even if you don't make it into the canyon, just look down into it, you can imagine the landscape on the bottom, with its many side canyons and crevices, as described in the book.

The mystery is based on a real event from the 1950s when two passenger planes collided and crashed into the canyon. When locals find diamonds at the bottom of the canyon, decades later, the real mystery unfolds, solved by the two Navajo officers, established characters in all of Hillerman's novels, Chee and Leaphorn.

Published in 2004, the novel was an instant New York Times bestseller.

Listening Woman

Once you visited the Grand Canyon, make your way to Canyon de Chelly, one of the most beautiful places on the Navajo Reservation. While there, read Listening Woman, another Hillerman mystery.
A boy scouts event takes place right there, at the National Park at the beginning of the novel, and as you visit the area, you recognize the places from the book.

The plot involves kidnapping of the boy scouts, and other crimes, all solved in the end by Leaphorn. Reading it while exploring Canyon de Chelly, its side canyons and the town of Chinle, helps you understand better the rituals and way of life of the Navajos living in the area.
Written in 1978, the novel was nominated for the "Best Mystery Novel" Edgar Award in 1979.

A Thief of Time

Before you get to Canyon de Chelly from Flagstaff, stop at Window Rock, to understand more of the setting of all of Hillerman's novels, and especially A Thief of Time. Though it starts off at Window Rock, most of he novel is set on the Arizona-New Mexico border somewhere in Many Ruins Canyon, an offshoot of Canyon de Chelly, and Chinle Valley.

The novel reveals a mystery involving a missing anthropologist and a few different crimes, all related to each other and solved in the end. While reading it, you learn about the Anasazi, or the Ancient Ones, and their dwellings that are scattered through the Southwest, the ones you are going to visit on your road trip. While enjoying a good murder mystery, you understand a little more about the places you are visiting, as well as some of the Navajo myths involving the Anasazi.

First published in 1988, later adapted for Television as part of the PBS Mystery! series in 2004, A Thief of Time won "Best Novel" at Macavity Awards, and was nominated for the Edgar Award and the Anthony Award.


If you read any of Hillerman's novels, you can not skip Skinwalkers, one of his very best. Published in 1986, winner of Spur Award for Best Western Novel in 1987, and Anthony Award for Best Novel in 1988, and adapted for TV in 2002, Skinwalkers is the first one where Leaphorn and Chee work together. They unravel a mystery involving shootings with bone beads instead of bullets that are supposed to kill Skinwalkers, or Navajo witches.

Driving through Dine-tah, the Navajo Reservation, you will go through a lot of the places this novel is set. Window Rock, Lukachukai, as well as sites like Nokaito Bench, where Chinle Creek joins the San Juan river, are all settings in this novel. Like all Chee/Leaphorn mysteries, the story itself makes a good read, but the real value of the work is the way Hillerman talks about the surroundings, about the high desert where rain and clouds are so rare, where the land is barren but extremely beautiful, and about the people who inhabit the place, especially the Dineh, or Navajo, their beliefs and ways of life.

If you made it through five Hillerman mysteries, you are probably hooked and will read all of the novels in the series. You probably feel the need to follow his protagonists through their adventures, and learn more about the Navajo, the Dineh, who love this inhospitable land through which you traveled and live here. By the end you will have a better understanding of their values, you will have a deeper respect for their way of life and beliefs. No wonder Hillerman received the Navajo Tribe's Special Friends of the Dineh award.

A fan of Hillerman's mysteries, Emese Fromm is a freelance writer/translator, living in Phoenix, AZ, who has explored most of the places in Arizona and the Four Corners region over the years. Her work has also been published in magazines like Travel thru History, InTravel Magazine, TravelLady, Skipping Stones, Stories for Children, among others.