I really enjoy Craig Johnson’s writing, but there’s something slightly amiss with The Dark Horse. It’s not the title: Johnson’s got a gift for picking out these alllusive titles with multiple references. It’s not the setting. The title thing is a small gift but Johnson’s ability to evoke rural Wyoming is a capacious and generous talent. The last novel took his detective, Sherriff Walt Longmire, to Philadelphia, and that was not a success. In The Dark Horse we’re back in the land of cowboys and pickup trucks and mesas and fierce weather, all of which is excellent. The plot, as always with Johnson, is perfectly fine — puzzling enough, logical enough, neatly solved.
I think the difficulty is inherent in the series murder mystery. When Johnson introduced us to Sherriff Walter Longmire in The Cold Dish, his was a refreshing new voice with a really compelling and charming character. Walter, in his late 50s at least, is tired and overweight, but has a big heart with a soft spot for folks in trouble and a gift for earning their trust. Great! The secondary characters, like his deputy Victoria Moretti and his best buddy Henry Standing Bear were also lovable.
But here’s the problem with success: you have to keep producing. If you write murder mysteries, you have to keep producing variations on a theme. So in The Dark Horse we get a woman in trouble, accused of a crime that Walt thinks she didn’t commit. Henry basically walks on and stands around. The alluring Basque deputy Saizarbitoria is alluded to, but serves no function. Walt and Vic get in bed, but she doesn’t do much to solve the mystery. In other words, Johnson has to use valuable words on these characters just to shoehorn them into his plot, but they are merely decorative.
Here’s another problem Johnson has: his protagonist is quite naturalistic and complex, so it becomes increasingly difficult to fit him into the murder-mystery template. Poor Walt and his staff have undergone a terrible amount of physical punishment since the series began. At some point, you get a collision between the lifelike character and the implausible plots.
All that being said, it’s still an enjoyable read. It’s just not quite as enchanting as I had hoped.