So – why shouldn’t a mystery writer be allowed to break out of the mold a little bit? Or, wait, let’s put this another way: must a mystery writer’s production always have an eye to the market?
Well, we live in a capitalist society and one answer to that question is that the market is always right. And the market, I’m afraid, is going to tell Craig Johnson to get back to what he does best. But what Johnson does best may be what led him into this situation in the first place, because his detective, Absaroka (WY) County Sherriff Walt Longmire, is a man with more sensitivity and imagination that you’d expect from a tough guy in a pickup. In fact, Johnson’s first novel, the marvelous The Cold Dish, featured a very effective mystical scene on a mountaintop. It blurred the lines of the naturalism that later became Johnson’s usual effective style.
This is not always a mistake. Fred Vargas traffics with the supernatural in her Adamsberg novels. But I would argue that her books are somewhat stylized in the first place, so the irruption of ghosts or The Wild Hunt into a police investigation doesn’t jar. (Probably because Adamsberg is like no cop we’ve ever met.) But Craig Johnson’s work is about the workaday. So when it became apparent that he had structured Hell is Empty around Dante’s Inferno, I got restive. First there’s the stone killer named Raynaud Shade (as in the dead people). Then there’s Walt’s guide in his terrifying high-altitude chase, an enormous Cheyenne Indian named Virgil White Buffalo. If that weren’t enough, Walt carries in his pack a paperback copy of The Inferno. And, yes, it does stop a bullet. But then, the bullet turns out to be imaginary. This is all as Walt, wounded and hypothermic, hallucinates at the top of Cloud Peak.
It worked before, in The Cold Dish, but that might be because the earlier book’s structure was sound and the mystery itself was fascinating. In this case, Johnson identifies Raynaud Shade as the killer very early on, and most of the novel is simply a bloody and brutal chase. There are inserted flash-back sections from the point of view of a little boy, whom we eventually understand is the child whose bones Shade is carrying up to the mountaintop. The only reason to use this technique is to pass along information that keeps the reader on the hook, but I felt awfully dim as I tried to piece together these disturbing scenes.
Walt makes an appealing narrator, wise and wry, but Johnson puts him through an implausible amount of agony in this tale. Again, if we Longmire fans weren’t accustomed to a more naturalistic narrative, this might have been easier to accept. It’s actually a compliment to Johnson that we care so much about a totally fictional guy. Maybe he’ll catch a break in the next book. OK, Craig?