In the publishing trade, a breakthrough book is one that gets taken up by readers who might not be expected to be its normal purchasers. Detective fiction sells well among the devoted fans of the genre and to the libraries frequented by them, well enough to make it a rare occurrence when a publisher loses money on a title. On the other hand, its audience remains limited to those with a developed taste for the stories of detection and mystery. Sometimes, however, a detection novel does become a best-seller, indicating that it has ‘‘broken through’’ the limits of its predictable readership. Synonymously, the publishing trade may call the phenomenon of a detective genre work landing on the best-seller lists a ‘‘crossover.’’ This term has the same meaning for the book business that it has in the popular music game—that a new issue selling more than the predictable numbers has appeal across the boundaries of the niche where it at first seemed marketable.
For Tony Hillerman the gratifying breakthrough occurred with his 1986 novel Skinwalkers featuring the detective team of Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee. Besides earning him a place on best-seller lists for the first time, the book also won the award called a Spur from the Western Writers of America, which, in its way, also demonstrated appeal beyond the detective genre.