Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book Review: Justice in the Big Horns (The Walt Longmire Mysteries)

It's always a pleasure when a favorite author pens a new book. You find yourself waiting in anticipation for it, looking forward to the moment you get to crack it open and find out what your friends on the page are up to this time.

There aren't many authors who fit that particular bill for me -- Donna Leon and her wonderful Venetian mysteries; the prolific David Weber, creator of the Honor Harrington series; Jim Butcher and his Codex Alera; non-fiction author Bill Bryson; Arturo Perez Reverte, creator of Captain Alatriste among others, and Lee Child with his manly-man hero Jack Reacher.

Late last year, Craig Johnson and his Walt Longmire mysteries came to occupy that rarified space as well, which was great because his first four books were all out and I was able to cruise them quickly and with great pleasure. Johnson's mysteries are well structured and compelling, not relying on gimmicks or tricks, but instead on fleshed out characters, snappy dialogue, close observation of human nature, and a vivid landscape that is just as important as any person in the book.

Longmire, the maybe-retiring-in-a-few-years sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, isn't a supercop or a kick-butt guy like Jack Reacher. He's an older guy, a Vietnam vet, and a native of Wyoming. He grew up on a ranch, is a widower with one adult daughter, and a strong sense of justice that is served well by his skills as a steady methodical cop. More than that, he's an interesting person, something of a renaissance man without feeling forced (as Reacher can at times). This is a good thing as the mysteries are all in first person so if we were bored with Walt, we'd have a problem and not much reason to keep reading.

While the Longmire mysteries are well stocked with eccentric characters, it's his two primary sidekicks -- Henry Standing Bear and Victoria "Vic" Moretti -- who stand out. The Bear, aka The Cheyenne Nation, is Walt's oldest and best friend, a fellow vet, and his guide in the Native American reservations and communities. Moretti, his deputy, is a transplant from Philadelphia, an excellent cop, and perhaps one of the sexiest and foulest mouthed law enforcement characters in current fiction. In all three cases, the characters have grown and changed over the course of the books. One of my pet peeves with some mystery writers is that they often refuse to acknowledge the passing of time and the evolution of a character. I read series like this not simply for the mystery but to go on the journey with the characters, to see what happens to them and how they grow.

This past week, I got my hands on Johnson's newest book, "The Dark Horse", and it didn't disappoint. Told in alternating pieces -- what's happening now and what happened over the preceding days -- Johnson leads us through a fascinating murder mystery in which the prime suspect in a brutal murder is found with the gun, with gunpowder residue on her hands, and who confesses to the crime on multiple occasions. For reasons that become clear through the flashbacks, we learn why Walt has gone undercover in Absalom, WY, on the belief that the confessed murderess is actually innocent. The mystery is intriguing, the new characters in Absalom are quirky without being cartoonish, and, of course, Vic and the Bear are along for the ride.

While not as strong an entry as Johnson's debut , "The Cold Dish", I enjoyed "The Dark Horse" tremendously. None of the books are written to fit the bill of a "page turner" but that's OK. They aren't intended to be thrillers, though they do have their moments. Instead, they are a close look as the diverse community that Longmire inhabits and how he copes with the occasional violence through the lens of a man with a strong moral code, a compulsion to set right an injustice, and who has seen and done violence before, much to his regret. It's for that reason that I look forward to reading about Walt Longmire for many books to come.

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