I like Craig Johnson for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that when I read The Cold Dish and wrote him a mash note, he actually wrote back. Yep, a long, cordial email, and I’ve felt very warmly toward the guy ever since. Even when, in Kindness Goes Unpunished, he sent poor Sheriff Walt Longmire to Philadelphia.
See, Walt is a cowboy. Sure, he’s a kind of beat-up postmodern cowboy with emotional baggage and a certain respect for law and order — ooh, maybe we could even say he’s the product of a dialectical interplay between cowboy and sheriff. How would that work? Cowboy: self-reliant, stoical, good with animals, independent, something of a rogue. Sheriff: well, the guy with the star. I think that works. Anyway, my point is that though every writer of a series is duty-bound to vary his or her formula somewhat, Walt Longmire needs to be out west.
Part of the reason for that is that we want our detectives competent, far more competent than we ourselves are. The mystery formula is in large part about reassurance. It was not reassuring to have Walt Longmire in an urban setting, misreading cues and severed from one of his greatest assets, which is a deep knowledge of the players in Absaroka County, Wyoming. And while part of Craig Johnson’s charm is making his protagonist self-deprecating, Walt in Philly was, well, just too far off the ranch.
So Junkyard Dogs, set in Durant, Wyoming, was reassuring from that point of view. It was funny: it opens with a great visual gag and goes on to gently mock both the tough-old-coot owner of a junkyard and his dispiriting grandson Duane. The book, as we expect from series fiction, continued to mull over the careers and love lives of the secondary characters. Walt and his potty-mouthed deputy Vic get no closer to resolving their romantic relationship but the handsome Basque deputy Saizarbitoria begins to recover from post-traumatic stress syndrome and begins to adjust to life with a newborn baby. There is a slightly worrisome subplot involving Walter’s health. Normally in this kind of book (I’m thinking in particular of the Sue Grafton mysteries, in which Kinsey Milhone has sustained considerable damage over the last 20-odd years) the detective gets dinged up but the reader is allowed to forget the physical damage which frankly strains the credulity.
Oh, the plot: murder, gunshots, Henry Standing Bear stalking a killer in the snow, an errant severed thumb. And, yes, junkyard dogs. Also a character who is meaner than the latter. Pretty satisfying.