Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Adventure classics -- The robbery that wasn't quite

The Great Taos Bank Robbery

by Tony Hillerman


“The basic and all-important skill of being a journalist (as opposed to being a writer),” Tony Hillerman wrote in his 2001 memoir, Seldom Disappointed, “is information collection. . . It’s not just a matter of knowing who has the information, it’s knowing who will share it with you.”

It was that knowledge of who was willing to share information that would give Hillerman’s mystery novels their aura of deep rootedness in the landscapes and people of New Mexico and Arizona. Because Hillerman, like so many famous writers about the Southwest, was a transplant, an Oklahoman who made an almost-instant decision to accept a job transfer that would change his life.

It would take Hillerman nearly twenty years of working as a reporter and editor in New Mexico to begin writing the mystery novels, starting with 1970’s The Blessing Way, that would win him widespread fame. His name is so deeply associated with fiction that I was surprised, after finding a copy of The Great Taos Bank Robbery in a used book store, to see that it was a volume of journalism essays.

Beginning with the title story about a great bank robbery that wasn’t great and wasn’t in fact even a robbery, through the final chapter of political chicanery whose perpetrator’s quarrel with the accounts was a wish that Hillerman had used his real name instead of an alias, the essays are early explorations of themes that would find their way through book after book of Hillerman’s more famous works--the unforgiving grandeur of the Four Corners landscape, the tragic history of its inhabitants, and a spit in the eye humor at misguided humans and institutions.

The book opens with the announcement that “the newsroom of (the Santa Fe newspaper) The New Mexican first got word of the incident about ten minutes after nine the morning of November 12, 1957. Mrs. Ruth Fish, who had served for many years as manager of the Taos Chamber of Commerce and almost as many as Taos correspondent for the Santa Fe newspaper, called collect and asked for the city editor. . . The city editor asked how Mrs. Fish knew the bank was to be robbed. . . Because, Mrs. Fish explained with patience, the two bank robbers were standing in line at this very moment waiting their turn at the teller's cage. This presumption seemed safe, Mrs. Fish said, because one of the two men was disguised as a woman and because he was holding a pistol under his purse.”

What follows is an almost-crime story that leaves the reader sympathizing with the would-be bandits, one of whom barely escapes because of his difficulty in running while wearing high heels. And a sly dig at the ineptitude of law enforcement agencies, which search unavailingly for the fugitives while the same fugitives return to downtown Taos to beg residents for money to escape the town. (Tellingly, only one townsperson bothers to notify authorities, and then only after treating the discouraged fugitives to supper.)

Hillerman fans will have as much fun as I did tracing other themes, such as the periodic outbreaks of bubonic plague among the area’s varied species of rodents and archeological excavations which may serve as cover for other operations.

My biggest regret in reading this book, available on Amazon and of course, in used book stores, was not finding a reference in Hillerman’s later work to the hero of “Othello in Union County,” “the book-reading, violin-playing Negro, a ranch foreman who carried a telescope in his saddle boot” and who may (or may not) have been named George McJunkin. In the early twentieth century, McJunkin tried to interest East Coast scientists in a discovery of Stone Age fossils that would rewrite the time frame for human settlement in the Americas. He would die nearly a decade before the significance of his find could be validated.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes a June of stories about Texas and the Southwest with Tom Lea’s The Brave Bulls.)

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