OPINION: Santa Fe biographer a finalist for Edgar Allan Poe Award

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Jan. 24—There's a funny line about prizes for literature: New York editors aren't tall enough to see over the Alleghenies.

But the vision of contest judges has been known to sharpen on occasion. This is one of those times. The horizon is clear all the way to New Mexico.

Santa Fe author James McGrath Morris is one of five finalists for an Edgar in the category of best critical or biographical work. He was nominated for his biography of Tony Hillerman, one of New Mexico's more celebrated writers.

The Edgars — shorthand for the Edgar Allan Poe Awards — are presented by the Mystery Writers of America, based in New York City. There's a symmetry to this year's nominations.

Hillerman won an Edgar in 1974 for best mystery novel for Dance Hall of the Dead. Jamie Morris, as he's known in Santa Fe, has a chance to bring home an Edgar for Tony Hillerman: A Life.

The author of eight books, Morris specializes in biography. Several of his subjects were writers.

One was newspaper publisher and politician Joseph Pulitzer. Another of Morris' biographies told the story of two World War I ambulance drivers — novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. A third was about Ethel Payne, a Black reporter who stood against racial and gender bias to cover the civil rights movement.

Morris, 67, says Hillerman might be his last biography. He worked on the book for 3 1/2 years. It was a project borne of familiarity. Morris began reading Hillerman's books in 1980 and saw a distinctive trait in many of them.

Generations had read mysteries by Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, John le Carré or Poe himself. Hillerman's books had something different. He provided a subtle education about Native Americans in the Southwest while entertaining readers with a puzzle built around a crime.

"He used the unassuming genre of mystery writing to examine the Navajo culture, the landscape, the tradition," Morris said.

Eighteen of Hillerman's novels were set on Native American reservations. His protagonists included Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police.

Morris captures this element, but it's only a small part of the story he tells in Hillerman.

An exhaustive researcher, Morris relied on primary documents to trace the life of Hillerman, who died in 2008 at age 83.

Morris also had an opportunity to interview people about Hillerman, saying they provided "emotional memory" to be squared alongside written records.

In that way, the book on Hillerman was different for Morris. Pulitzer died in 1911, leaving Morris no one to interview. Morris spent five years exploring Pulitzer's life by digging into old newspapers and mounds of documents, including Pulitzer's record as a congressman.

No matter the subject, Morris uses the same system.

"What I do is very much like long-form journalism, writing scenes and moments until there's a theme to it. It's like stealing ideas from fiction but writing factually," Morris said.

Another part of his approach is he never stops researching, even while he's nearing the last sentence of the final chapter.

Morris said the Hillerman biography hasn't been received the way he thought it could be. Hillerman became an international figure, his books published in 17 countries, but Morris' biography has commanded attention mostly in the American West.

Hillerman's own following began in one region, under deadline pressure. He worked as a newspaperman and wire service reporter in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

One of the longer stops on Hillerman's résumé was from 1954-63 at The New Mexican, where he rose to executive editor. Hillerman later taught journalism at the University of New Mexico. He was head of the journalism department the night he won an Edgar in New York City.

Hillerman had been nominated for an Edgar twice before. The first time was for The Blessing Way, featuring Lt. Leaphorn. His second was for The Fly on the Wall, a wild tale that had nothing to do with Navajo life. The plot was a political scandal that escalated to murders of statehouse newspaper reporters.

Morris' competition for the Edgar is intense. The other finalists are authors of books about Poe, Christie, Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock.

Winning an Edgar might vault Morris' biography of Hillerman to greater heights. But awards are capricious. Morris' book doesn't drop in quality if the prize goes to another author.

No less an authority than Hillerman knew it.

"You write for two people, yourself and your audience, who are usually better educated and at least as smart," he said.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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