Cold in Wyoming
Lauretta O'Connor July 3, 2011 - 3:18pm
Being something of a wimp, I avoid books about satanic serial killings, suffocation by pythons or other unappealing death scenarios. The mysteries I read are usually set in cities or in cozy English villages, but like most book lovers I am always on the prowl for something new and wonderful.When I saw a blurb praising Craig Johnson, a writer who was new to me, I took a chance on The Cold Dish (Penguin, 400 pp, $14), his first book. The setting is Wyoming, in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains. High plains country, they call it, with isolated cabins and dangerous weather. But this book is amazingly free of wild animals. All the damage is done by humans.Walt Longmire, the sheriff of Absaroka County, is a Western tough guy who reads Shakespeare and likes to reflect on things. There is a tenderness in his steel inner core, as if John Wayne had spent a couple of years at Harvard and then went to an ashram for good measure. His best friend is Henry Standing Bear, a Northern Cheyenne and the owner of the Red Pony Bar. "Vic" (Victoria) Morretti, his sexy, foul-mouthed chief deputy, is a refugee from south Philadelphia, unhappily married (how long can it last?), and devoted to her job.The plot begins with the death of Cody Pritchard, a local ne'er-do-well. A few years earlier, Cody and three other teenaged boys had been convicted of a prolonged sexual attack on Melissa Little Bird, a young Cheyenne suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. The four are let off with the lightest possible sentence, leaving many people feeling that justice was not served.Cody's death seems a likely hunting accident, but the sheriff is bothered by an eagle feather found at the site. When a second young man from the group is found dead from a massive shotgun blast, Sheriff Longmire swings into action with dread in his heart. Is it possible that one of the local Cheyenne is taking revenge?The author's intimate knowledge of the Big Horn country--its towering and deadly beauty--gives the ordinary police work that follows, and the final blood-soaked manhunt, more than a touch of the spectacular. Mr. Johnson also provides a most satifying plot resolution. It developed right under my nose but is so skillfully disguised that I never saw it coming. This is probably because Mr. Johnson diverts and entertains with a bagful of local lore, such as how the Sharps rifle changed Custer's fate at Little Big Horn.I often judge characters in a book by whether or not I would like to have a drink with them. Mr. Johnson's characters are indeed memorable and they would doubtless be excellent company over a can of Ranier Beer, the quaff of choice in Absaroka County. You should not be surprised to learn that I have already re-connected with Sheriff Longmire and his pals in Craig Johnson's second book.