There’s a branch of crime genre that’s set in the grizzled lands of the Wild West, its gumshoes/police chiefs in boots, spurs, and cowboy hats, as taciturn as any LA noir street dick–and as secretly well-read, as white-knightly, and as troubled.
Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire, in his gritty page-turner “Longmire series” novels, the latest being A Serpent’s Tooth (Viking 2013), strides along a Wyoming landscape even more windswept and stark and beautiful than the real thing if that’s possible (fiction does that). He’s not the silent stranger riding down from the hills to cure a western town of evil but a man-of-few-words widower who trades banter and affection with his comrades in arms. He’s so much a part of the town and lawman culture in the western states that he knows what’s happening in the bad guys’ heads before he can understand his own grief over his wife’s passing, his attraction for his undersheriff, and his penchant for getting into tough situations that usually end with his skin being punctured multiple times by a lethal weapon.
The bad guys are as modern as our hero. They’re drug dealers and battle-scarred vets off their meds, pimps and roughneck extortionists with CIA backgrounds. The issues are never as white hat / black hat as B-westerns protrayed–in that Johnson tips his own broad-brimmed hat to the noir genre with its seething cauldron of social ills like drug use, poverty, big-money greed, and even bigger failings of human nature, a toxic stew flavored with antelope, buttes, and gimlet-eyed sheriffs and undersheriffs.
Refreshingly ever-present in the community of the western world of Longmire are Native American voices, notably Longmire’s best friend Henry Standing Bear, whose deadpan take on life wins him the “Best More than a Wise Native Sidekick” award. The love interest is the shoot-from-the-hip Victoria “Vic” Moretti, an Eastern transplant from the mean streets of Philly who brings her share of f-bombs.
I read Craig Johnson’s books like I read my zillion paperback westerns–with an eye to how the genre is shaped, prodded, provoked, and transformed in the hands of a masterful storyteller with respect for the genre–the plots make your pages turn, the characters are drawn skillfully, the setting is gorgeous, dark, and unsettling. His most recent novel, A Serpent’s Tooth, gathers Mormon “lost boys,” polygamists, and Joseph Smith’s very own regulator, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Man of God, Son of Thunder–who just happens to have a yen for My Friend Flicka–into a high-plans high-speed scavenger hunt with the Teapot Dome scandal, shale oil profiteering, and the shadowy side of the CIA.
But most enduring is that Johnson is writing about more than shootouts and scuffed cowboy boots. “They are complex, those chambers of the human heart,” Standing Bear tells Longmire brooding at his desk about wrongs he cannot make right. Then he continues after a beat, “You do realize that it is simply a myogenic muscular organ, right?” The two agree.
The words of Craig Johnson follow the tried-and-true flexing of the muscular crime/western hybrid but they also hint at deeper undercurrents of oh-so-American genre fiction–not only how to find beauty and generosity in a brutal modern world but how to fight for it, one silver bullet at time.
Craig Johnson is the author of eight novels in the Walt Longmire mystery series, which has garnered popular and critical acclaim including the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award, the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year, and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. Hell Is Empty, selected by Library Journal as the Best Mystery of the Year, was a New York Times best seller, as was As the Crow Flies. The Walt Longmire series is the basis for the hit A&E drama Longmire, starring Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Katee Sackoff.**
**Yes, Starbuck is salt-of-the-earth, sexy Vic!