Listening Woman brought to a close the series of three novels devoted to presenting Joe Leaphorn as a solo detective. After introducing the Navajo detective in The Blessing Way published in 1970, Tony Hillerman turned to writing The Fly on the Wall, the book based loosely on his practical experiences as a political reporter and editor, which appeared in 1971. Two years elapsed before Hillerman used Joe Leaphorn again, this time as the protagonist in his 1973 detective novel Dance Hall of the Dead. Then, while he wrote and published a children’s book, The Boy Who Made Dragonfly, and works of nonfiction, there was a five-year gap before Leaphorn returned in 1978 in Listening Woman.
Hillerman has explained that he dropped Leaphorn for two reasons. One was that he had an idea for a plot in a new book that would work better if the detective were newer to the police force, younger, and with an even more traditional Navajo background that could be used for good effect in a narrative about the Checkerboard Reservation where ethnic groups are all mixed. Another reason was that he had signed a film and TV option on Dance Hall of the Dead that included waiver of his television rights to Leaphorn—a disturbing mistake that lent encouragement to his interest in a new detective (Companion 57–58).
Once he had conceived of his new sleuth Jim Chee, Hillerman worked steadily on novels about him. Chee debuted in 1980 in People of Darkness, had his second appearance as a lone detective in The Dark Wind in 1982,