Being a methodical kind of girl, I tend to read series mysteries in order, the way their author wrote them. But I got sidetracked somehow with Craig Johnson and leapt to Junkyard Dogs before getting to Another Man’s Moccasins. Of course it doesn’t matter: these books have to be written to work as standalones. But reading the two books so close together brought up an interesting issue. It seemed to me that Junkyard Dogs was reaching for comic effect, and did so pretty successfully. But Another Man’s Moccasins goes in a completely different direction — also with considerable power. So I began to wonder about the amount of flexibility within the murder mystery genre. Someone has to be killed, someone has to figure out who did it, and the investigation must be consistent with the nature of the characters. It must also endure for some satisfying length of time — at least 100,000 words.
So, as a writer, you’ve got pretty strict limitations. But you’re still playing with one of The Big Issues, death, and perhaps its ancillaries, like guilt and grief. It’s a good selection of themes, and I can totally see how a writer like Johnson might want to handle them in different ways from time to time. Thus while Junkyard Dogs has an antic, sardonic flavor, Another Man’s Moccasins is — well, actually, it’s tragic.
It begins with a body, of course. But I should add that Absaroka County Sherriff Walter Longmire is a little shaken right from the get-go, because his beloved daughter Cady got hurt in the last book, and she’s just now recovering from her head wound. Walt himself, while physically fairly sound, is thinking dark thoughts about mortality. So when the body turns out to be that of a young Vietnamese woman, it’s no surprise that Walt starts having flashbacks to his military service. The good news is that we get a lot of Walt’s Cheyenne sidekick Henry Standing Bear in this book. The bad news is that he and Walt crossed paths in Vietnam under the very worst of circumstances.
It must be said that neither the Vietnam mystery nor the Wyoming mystery is especially mysterious. But Johnson does a good job linking them, and he also does well with the fairly frequent transitions between present-day and flashback. In the course of the novel Walt hears a couple of hard truths about his own character, delivered in completely credible ways. It feels as if Johnson is reaching a little further than usual this time, while still obeying the rules of the mystery game, and he does so effectively. It is true that I wasn’t really looking for gruesome combat scenes when I picked this up, but I have a lot of respect for the way Johnson handled the challenge he set himself.