In its version of Hollywood’s Oscar, Broadway’s Tony, and television’s Emmy, the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) bestow annual awards on the works they judge to be the best of each year. Appropriately named for Edgar Allan Poe, the reputed father of detective fiction, the MWA’s award, known familiarly as the ‘‘Edgar,’’ represents high critical praise. It is coveted by writers, because it amounts to an endorsement of their craft by professional peers, and publishers vie for the Edgar in the expectation that it will help promote their product.
The winner for 1973 in the category of ‘‘Best Mystery Novel of the Year’’ was Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead, his third novel in the detective fiction genre and the second outing for the Navajo police officer Joe Leaphorn. In honoring Dance Hall of the Dead, the MWA selected a work constructed on the model of classic detection. The lean narrative wastes not a word as it follows Joe Leaphorn on a search for a missing Navajo boy that leads into the secrets of Native American spiritual beliefs and the archaeological mystery of Native American origins. As functional in the narrative as Leaphorn’s detection method itself, these additional levels of mystery attest both to the skill in Tony Hillerman’s construction of a detective novel and to the meaning with which he can invest the genre.