In The Writer's World

Hell is empty resizedCraig Johnson rode into town on a balmy night last summer to promote his latest Walt Longmire novel Junkyard Dogs. Until that night, I’d never heard of him. But, as he was reading at one of my favorite indie bookstores, Murder By The Book, we decided to check him out.

He looked like a cowboy. He talked like a cowboy. He is a cowboy! And his Sheriff Walt Longmire mystery series is tons of fun. In mid-September I started reading The Cold Dish, the first book in the series, and didn’t stop until I completed #6, Junkyard Dogs. I am eagerly awaiting #7, Hell is Empty, which will be released in early June.

The series is set in northern Wyoming, where the author has lived for years. If, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout suggests, place is the main character, Johnson has it nailed. It’s part of who he is.

In this lonely, arid, ruggedly beautiful country tiny outposts can harbor huge secrets, and Nature moves quickly and powerfully. An unexpected change in weather adds drama and danger to nearly any situation. Deadly blizzards, closed roads, an unexpected storm, or the searing heat of summer share the stage with ghosts from the Little Big Horn and Custer’s last stand.

Walt Longmire’s sparsely populated fictional county is home to more murderers and murder victims per capita than probably any place on earth (save, perhaps, that isolated village in southern Sweden where  Henning Mankell’s detective Kurt Wallander solves heinous crimes). But this presents no problem for we mystery readers who crave good stories with great characters, loads of local color, and some healthy doses of humor thrown in to balance all that body count.

The Indian culture plays a significant role in Johnson’s novels as well, and is best represented by the character Henry Standing Bear (aka the Cheynne Nation), Walt’s best friend and confidant since childhood and a fellow Vietnam vet. A man of spiritual clout, Henry is Walt’s touchstone, not only offering wisdom and the occasional reality check, but also extracting potentially crime-solving information from his tribal brethern when necessary.

Then there is Walt’s deputy, Victoria Moretti. Raised in a family of Philadelphia cops, Vic arrives on the scene married. After the unsatisfactory husband departs without her, she sets her sights on the sheriff–who though old, crochety, and widowed, is a pussycat when it comes to women. Walt may be old enough to be Vic’s father, but she doesn’t care. Whenever the two are in a room together, well-orchestrated sparks fly.

As a writer, I admire Johnson’s ability to layer his work seamlessly. The plots and sub-plots are as one. Local characters grow on you, and as the series progresses their stories unfold. The reader comes to know and love a remote and little-known part of our world.

Johnson writes of what he knows. He’s also worked in law enforcement including a stint as a Senior Special Officer in New York City’s Central Park. (I’m guessing that is where “Vic” learned how to swear like Tony Soprano.) He lives with his wife in Ucross, Wyoming, population 25, very close to where much of the action in his novels takes place.

P.S. to original post: A television series based on Johnson’s novels is in the works. Very exciting!

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