23 May 2014
Speaking as someone who has never been to the west — and, no, San Francisco doesn’t count — I leaped at the chance to review “Any Other Name,” the 11th book in the series by Craig Johnson.
I was especially interested because the series did not show up on my radar until Deb Beamer of the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookstore told me about the last visit Johnson paid to the area a year or so ago.
There, in a shoebox of a building plopped down in a former cornfield outside the small town, Johnson fans turned out to flood the building. Extra chairs were added. Bookshelves pushed back. Keen eyes were peeled for the fire marshal, and a good time was had by all.
Craig Johnson will appear at 4 p.m. May 23 at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, 6500 Simpson Ferry Road, sponsored by the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop.
Clearly, I had missed something, so I was happy to make Sheriff Walt Longmire’s acquaintance and see what’s going on in his part of Wyoming.
I haven’t read any of the other books, so I have to go only by what I’ve read in “Any Other Name,” so bear with me if my points seem too obvious.
This time, Walt is enlisted by his old mentor to investigate a suicide. Over in neighboring Campbell County, an old detective was investigating several cold cases when he checks into a motel and puts a bullet in his head. The detective’s girlfriend enlists the help of ex-sheriff Lucian Connally, who talks Longmire into finding out what happened.
With the help of his girlfriend, Undersheriff Victoria Moretti and his friend Henry Standing Bear (whom he calls at times “the Cheyenne Nation” which slots him into the Mystical Indian Companion trope), they follow the thread that leads to several missing women, a strip club backed by a local power broker, a casino in Deadwood, South Dakota, intense waves of blinding snowstorms and trains. Lots of trains.
Apparently, this Western landscape is not the romantic vistas of a John Ford movie, but shabby towns, shabbier businesses, flat barren lands and endless trains. And did I mention the snow?
The Appeal of the Series
Like any fictional officer, Longmire is smart, tough and dedicated. As Connally puts it: “He’s like a gun; once you point him and pull the trigger, it’s too late to change your mind.” He’s not as cynical as Hammett’s Continental Op, and not a romantic knight errant like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He’s a closer cousin to Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus Bosch, only not as haunted by his cases.
Staying inside a character’s head for an entire book can be risky if he wears out his welcome by becoming tedious or whining or depressive. But Longmire’s appealing. He is not a loner; he has friends and he works to gets along with people. He has dreams that foreshadows events. His deadpan humor demands paying attention. Drawing on his photographic memory, he’s a walking Wikipedia, capable of dropping information about coal-car accidents, the history of “muffler men” signage, and Colt shooting irons.
By the end of the book, racing trains and the elements to rescue a damsel in distress, you’re rooting for him as if you’re watching Ford’s “Stagecoach.”
Some things about the West never change.