Hillerman's writing is noted for the cultural details he provides for the people he writes about: Hopi, Zuni, European-American, federal agents, and especially Navajo Tribal Police. His works in non-fiction and in fiction reflect his appreciation of the natural wonders of the American Southwest and his appreciation of its people, particularly the Navajo.
His mystery novels are set in the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona. The protagonists are Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee of the Navajo tribal police. Lt. Leaphorn was introduced in Hillerman's first novel, The Blessing Way (1970). The second book in the series, Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), won a 1974 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel. In 1991, Hillerman received the MWA's Grand Master Award. Hillerman has also received the Nero Award (for Coyote Waits) and the Navajo Tribe's Special Friends of the Diné Award.