I decided to re-read Johnson’s first book, The Cold Dish, for a number of reasons. One was that I attended Longmire Days in Buffalo, Wyoming, back in July and it was interesting to see the places that inspired the mythical town, Durant, and the mythical county, Absaroka, of Johnson’s books. This along with hearing Craig Johnson talk about his work (and I’ve read all but the latest novella) made me want to start at the beginning, knowing what I know now about all the characters.
Another reason I decided to return to The Cold Dish was that on our road trip, my sister and I listened to the audio book version. I think I knew this already but I’m not a good processor of audio books; I tend to get distracted and lose track of the narrative and I can’t backtrack the CD. So, even though we got to the end of the audio book (and I definitely was paying attention at the end), I had missed huge chunks in the middle as I zoned out driving along Interstate 90.
Finally, I left Wyoming with a newly purchased paperback, autographed by both Craig Johnson and the actor who plays Walt Longmire on TV, Robert Taylor, just begging to be opened.
If you are a mystery fan and like mysteries that have a good sense of place and you haven’t read Craig Johnson’s books, my advice is to stop reading this review right now and run (don’t walk) to your local library or bookseller. Craig Johnson is of the James Lee Burke school of mystery writing—books that are long on character development, filled with but not burdened down with specific details of place, and with passages that are just written so damn beautifully that you have to stop for a minute and admire them. Like Burke, Johnson throws in a sprinkle of mysticism—both Dave Robicheaux and Walt Longmire occasionally see and are influenced by the dead. [An essay needs to be written at some point (if it hasn’t been already) by some mystery-loving grad student exploring the points of connection between these two series.] Reading Craig Johnson’s books reminds me why I like mysteries so much—most authors work to create a standalone story while also constructing a larger arc for their main character and those that surround him/her.
In this debut novel, Johnson introduces us to Sheriff Walt Longmire and those who love, hate, and/or tolerate him including his deputy, Vic Moretti, newly transplanted from Philadelphia, and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, owner of the Red Pony bar. A body is found up in the hills by a herd of sheep and the victim is Cody Pritchard, one of four boys who were accused of raping a young, mentally disabled Cheyenne woman but were let off with relatively light sentences. Was it a random hunting accident or is somebody out for revenge? As Walt attempts to figure out what is going on and who is responsible, he has to contend with his own memories of the trial as well as his feelings as a widower about being pushed back into the land of the living by his family and friends. This is a chewy mystery with lots of memorable side characters and it pays to read it slowly with full attention. Your patience will be rewarded (and you will laugh out loud a number of times, I promise.)
I’ve heard Craig Johnson say several times at book signings that the more you learn about him and his family, the less impressed you will be with his skills as a writer. That is, many details from the novels come from his own life. However, that is what I think a good novelist does—creates a vivid new world from pieces of what is known. Long before I saw an episode of Longmire, Walt and his friends leapt off the page and took up residence in my head and my heart. The only difference these days is now I see Walt looking less like Craig Johnson and more like Robert Taylor.