Thursday, January 13, 2011

American Icon: Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire

Reviewed by Doris

The American Western man has long been an icon of American culture. Tall, quiet, a man of action, a man of honor, a man who loves his horse, his dog, his wide open spaces, and his woman (once he finally has one),the Western hero is embedded in the American Consciousness. Think Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, or Henry Fonda in their heyday of movies. Framed by the likes of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey the Western novel is still one of the most requested genres at the BPL. Recently I was reading some reviews and saw one highly recommending Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series of Western mysteries so I decided to give them a read.

Johnson’s books continue the Western tradition, but he adds a few new twists and turns. Walt Longmire is a Wyoming sheriff whose view of the world is shaped by those vast, often desolate spaces and the creed of the West. Having survived serving in Vietnam, losing his wife to cancer, and being a sheriff for twenty some years, he has reached the point where he thinks few things surprise him. Yet, he is often surprised by the peculiarities of the people around him. His sense of humor is wry and usually misunderstood. His penchant for quoting the Bible or works of great literature in almost any situation tends to confuse or annoy his neighbors. Surrounded by a cast of intriguing and quirky characters, Longmire uses his innate sense of justice and his strength of will to solve his cases. He is no longer young, no longer in good physical shape, no longer eager to take on the world, but he is a solid, kind man who gives everything to his family and job.

The Absaroka County setting plays a significant role in Johnson’s novels to the point that the landscape is almost a character in the books. It is this vast and often hostile land that shapes the people and the crimes Longmire must handle. Johnson lives in the town of Ucross, population 25, so his feel for the vast and often violent terrain is genuine. His career in law enforcement also lends an authenticity to the books not always found in mysteries.

You don’t have to read the six Longmire books in order though it does help you see the evolution of both the characters and Johnson’s writing which improves with each novel. I started with the fifth book then backtracked to the beginning, and it did not diminish my enjoyment at all. The newest book in the series, Junkyard Dogs, is a major step forward for Johnson in plotting and style. Similar to Robert Parker’s Spenser series which I have always enjoyed and mourned the passing of with Parker’s death, this series is one I look forward to enjoying for years to come.

The Cold Dish-This first book introduces most of the characters that will shape Walt Longmire’s life. It opens with the death of Cody Pritchard who was convicted—along with three other high school boys—of the rape of a young Cheyenne girl who is a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The boys’ punishment for the brutal attack was suspended sentences, and the racial tensions between the white community and the Cheyenne Reservation have escalated. Even his chief deputy believes Cody’s death was a hunting accident, but Walt has an uneasy feeling about it. Then another of the boys dies and the tensions and questions really heat up. Are the killings revenge for the rape or are there other factors involved? Is the killer Walt’s best friend who is the uncle of the raped child?

Death Without Country-Absaroka County sheriff Lucien Connolly hired Walt as a deputy as soon as Longmire left the Marines after Vietnam. Years later Lucien made sure Walt succeeded him as sheriff. The long-time friendship comes into question when secrets from Lucien’s past come out after a Basque woman dies at a local assisted living facility where Lucien lives. Walt finds himself torn between catching a killer and protecting his friend who may have been involved in a death and its cover up. The plotting of this story is fast and convoluted.

Kindness Goes Unpunished—Longmire’s daughter Cady is the light of his life. She is fiercely independent and a hotshot young attorney in Philadelphia. Walt and Henry Standing Bear take a road trip to the City of Brotherly Love just in time for Cady to be brutally attacked and left in a coma. Out of his element in a big city and crushed by the possible loss of his daughter, Longmire joins forces with the Moretti family of cops and the Philadelphia PD to find Cady’s attacker. This one pulls at your heart.

Another Man’s Moccasins begins with the dead body of a Vietnamese woman along the road. In her belongings is a picture of Longmire and a barmaid he knew when he was a Marine MP in Saigon in 1968. The investigation leads to human trafficking and flashbacks that carry Walt to the heart of his war experiences. Vivid scenes of Vietnam and what happened there are the hallmark of this book.

The Dark Horse—Wade Barsad, a man with a dubious past, locked his wife Mary’s horses in the barn and then burned it down. In return she shot him in the head six times or so she said. Walt goes undercover to the county where Mary and Wade lived. There he encounters some of his own ghosts and discovers there were many people who wanted Wade Barsad dead. Mary shot him, but did she kill the man who needed killing?

Junkyard Dogs—The Stewart family owns a local junkyard right next door to a new exclusive housing development. Neither the Stewarts nor the developer is happy about it. Then a severed thumb turns up in a cooler in the junkyard. Where is the rest of the body? This book has enough turns to make your head spin and it is funny to boot. The solution was not one I saw coming!

Hell is Empty—comes out in June, 2011. I have already pre-ordered it.

The main library has Cold Dish, Kindness Unpunished, the Dark Horse, and Junkyard Dogs. Just look for F Joh at Main or Avoca. We can request the other books for you from other libraries in the region.

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