23 Sep 2016
A look at my website will show that in the last few years I’ve become a fan of Craig Johnson’s Longmire, the fictional sheriff of Wyoming’s Absaroka County. I was introduced to his work a few years ago when Deb Beamer, the owner of the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, let me know that Craig Johnson was coming to the store and that he always drew a good crowd.
I hadn’t seen any of the “Longmire” shows — still haven’t as the TV’s not allowed to leave the yard — but Johnson’s a show all his own. Wearing a pale Stetson and looking like a well-fed Western rancher, he told stories about his books, the TV show and the cast, revealed the plots and titles of his upcoming novels, and took questions from the audience.
All of this makes him sounds like one of those cowboy poets who occasionally appear on “Prairie Home Companion,” but like a lot of stories that come out of the West, it’s equal parts myth and truth, and maybe a little nonsense thrown in.
Johnson, whether by accident or design, is a skilful manager of his image. It wasn’t until after three visits that I learned, here and there, from his stories and online sources, that he’s a West Virginia boy who got a degree from Temple University, that he spent ten years thinking about Longmire (a name he picked up from a Wyoming store) while building his ranch in the crossroad municipality of Ucross. Although his early books credit him with “a background in law enforcement,” I don’t know exactly what that means.
Not that it matters. I put that out there strictly out of puerile interest in a man whose beautifully written police procedurals are set in a part of the West that’s isolated, a mix of industrial and rural, white and Native American, that’s a country with its own customs, rituals, beliefs, and dangers.
Over a dozen novels and a few novellas, including “The Highwayman” (you thought we were never going to get there, didn’t you?), Sheriff Walt Longmire has grown from a grieving widower marinated in alcohol to a trivia-spouting decent but hard man trying to do what he thinks is right. He’s the better-humored cousin to Philip Marlowe.
For such a small book, “The Highwayman” is actually two stories. One of them involves a reputed ghost, a deceased Arapaho patrolman named Bobby Womack, and a patrolman who swears that she’s hearing him over the radio. Her supervisor asks Longmire to ride with her for a few days; if he doesn’t hear Womack, he’ll have to talk her into getting help.
Johnson tosses in an elderly Native woman who gives Walt the nickname of Bucket (because he’s beyond the pale, as in skin); a missing cache of silver dollars stolen decades ago; and a sense that the Wind River Canyon where all this takes place can work strange magic on the people who live and patrol its roads.
“The Highwayman” is a mystery in the Agatha Christie style, with clues, misdirection, and a solution that neatly ties together all of the events. There is also people who live and breath and work and die and scenic descriptions that’ll make you wish you could go out there yourself. Then there’s Walt, a decent man trying to do his job in a world that’s not as noir-dark as Los Angeles, but with perils of its own.