Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Cold Dish - Craig Johnson

Walt Longmire is the sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming, a place where everyone knows your name and probably your business. Walt's been a widower for four years now. His home is worse than a bachelor pad, his deputy Vic is forever giving him a hard time about being overweight, and there's mouse droppings on his cooking utensils.

Despite the fact that Walt's life seems to be in a shambles, the people of Absaroka County like Walt, especially his good friend and Cheyenne Indian Henry Standing Bear. As a matter of fact, there's a small conspiracy going on between Henry, Cady (Walt's adult daughter), and Ruby (Walt's strong-willed secretary) to coax Walt back into the swing of life.

But a murder throws a wrench in that plan. Cody Pritchard, Jacob and George Esper and Brian Keller were convicted a few years earlier of raping and assaulting a young Cheyenne Indian girl, Melissa, who suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. The were convicted by served measly sentences. Many people in the community and on the Cheyenne Reservation were disgusted with the outcome of the trial, and the outcome haunts Walt. So, when Cody Pritchard winds up shot to death and shortly thereafter Jacob succumbs to the same fate, Walt has to figure out who of the multitude of suspects is behind the murders and protect both George and Brian from ending up like Cody and Jacob. The hardest part for Walt is the fact that Henry, Melissa's "uncle", is a prime suspect.

Not too long ago, a friend on Goodreads reviewed Craig Johnson's most recent book, Another Man's Moccasins. She started her review by saying, "boy, can this guy write." I remembered her saying that about another author. Let's see, who was that...OH YEAH, it was Michael Koryta! And we all know my feelings about Koryta's writing! So of course if she thought Craig Johnson could also write well, I definitely had to look into this guy. And me being the OCD reader that I am, I can't start a series in the middle, I have to go back to the beginning and start there. And the beginning is The Cold Dish. And let me start by saying that my friend LJ was absolutely right, this guy CAN write. The adverb "well" doesn't even begin to scratch the surface!

Had there been no plot to this story whatsoever, I probably would have been mesmerized all the same. The characters are some of the richest I've seen in a long time. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I wanted to go live in Absaroka County with them! Walt is just plain fun. There's no question why his constituents like him. He's kind and fair and aims to do the "right" thing. He's not perfect, and his altercation with Turk highlights that. Turk assaulted Jules, an old drunk man, while putting Jules in jail for peeing on him. Walt simply lost his control and assaulted Turk. While his actions are ironic, I had trouble feeling any sympathy for Turk. But Ruby was furious with Walt and even threatened to quit because she was disgusted with his behavior. And Walt was embarrassed for it. Me, I was cheering for him!

I love Walt, but I often have a special affinity for the supporting character in a duo-type story. I'm a big fan of Kellerman's Milo, Coben's Win, and of course Crais' Joe Pike! I'm equally as fond of Henry. He is an incredibly rich character. His sarcastic humor is phenomenal. I was almost in tears laughing at various parts in this novel, and they usually involved something Henry was saying. And Henry often ends up being the voice of reason when Walt starts getting carried away. A certain quirk about Henry that I found very endearing, he never uses contractions when he speaks.

There are not a lot of GREAT female characters in crime fiction, by my standards. And even fewer that are written by men. But Vic may very well have climbed to the top of my list. And this is ironic. It's ironic because usually female characters with foul mouths turn me off, but Vic doesn't. Johnson has made the profanity that comes in her dialogue work for her. Throughout the book I've tried to figure out what he's doing differently that makes it develop her character instead of detract from it. I haven't quite figured it out, yet; I'm hoping that by the time I make it to Another Man's Moccasins I'll know. But for now, suffice it to say, it adds to her character.

All the characters in this novel are fascinating: Lucien, Omar, Jules, Ruby, George, Vonnie, Dena, Melissa and Lonnie Little Bird...yes, it is so. Johnson has a knack for breathing realism into his characters and bringing them to life for the reader. And their interactions with each other add a whole additional level of complexity to the novel. In and of themselves they would each be great characters but the relationships between them make them extraordinary characters.

But characterization isn't his only skill. Absaroka County is a tiny little place in Wyoming where very little out of the ordinary happens. This fact is reinforced when Vic is giving her crime updates to Walt at various times throughout the novel:

'Okay, we had three mailboxes at Rock Creek reportedly hit, got a call on some kid chasing horses with his snow machine, turns out the kid owned the horses and there's no law saying you can't herd livestock with a snow machine...that from the eleven-year-old perpetrator. Earl Walters slid off the road at Klondike and Upper Clear Creek and took out a yield sign; I always knew the ancient f#&%*&# couldn't read. And our crime of the day, Old Lady Grossman reported somebody stealing the snowman out of her yard and driving off with it. Ferg stopped the suspect, who turned out to be her nephew who had taken it as a joke.'

So when this murder happens to the perpetrators of the only previous crime that haunts Walt, all the county is whispering and theorizing.

I find that nowadays I especially enjoy settings that are off the beaten path. There are many books set in big cities like Chicago, Boston, NYC, or LA, and don't get me wrong, I have many favorites there, too (hello - Elvis Cole in LA), but the not-so-common settings are intriguing, different, unique. Absaroka County is one of those places.

I mentioned that IF the book had no plot, I would still be mesmerized by the characters. However, the book has an amazing plot. And it is so well crafted. At the beginning of Chapter 4 I was utterly confused. Chapter 3 ended with Walt seeing that he had a message on his answering machine from his daughter. You don't know what she says beyond, "'Hi, Pops...'" And then Chapter 4 starts out with

'You are not dying.'

'How do you know, you've never died.' I pushed my spine into the depression in the mile-marker post and eased my weight against its scaly green-painted surface.

'I have died many times.'

'Oh, s#%$&.'

'Get up.'

I picked a piece of cheat grass from the red shale roadbed, and it came out in one whole stalk, roots and all. It was cold, too. The frost clung to every surface, encasing the poor little fellow like those dragonflies you see trapped in thousand-year-old amber. If I was going to keep doing this every other morning, I had to get a pair of gloves. I raised my head and looked at him as he positioned himself in front of the rising sun like some fighter pilot moving in for the kill.

It isn't until another two pages pass that the reader learns that Henry has Walt out running. When it was finally revealed, I was crying I was laughing so hard. Especially when Clel, the character who discovers Henry and Walt on the side of the road says, "[running] From what?" And those two pages aren't filled with unnecessary fluff, they build up the reader's intrigued as to what the heck is going on.

The element I enjoyed the most was the intertwining of the Cheyenne Indian culture. I've always been fascinated by mythologies. So, I thought Chapter 12 was beyond brilliant. It was moving and it carried a completely different tone than the rest of the novel. There was obvious and utter respect emanating from this chapter.

I didn't know what kind of song it was, I didn't know what the words were, and I didn't want to know. I only listened to the complex melodies and carried them in my heart and mind, as other footprints seemed to join in with mine and share the load of George Esper. Old footfalls, old as the mountains and just as enduring. I listened as other voices joined in Henry's song, strong voices, voices that carried not only over the valley but through it. The Old Cheyenne were with me, and I could feel their strength as I continued along the trail, my heavy boots forming the snow as I went. The drums were there too, matching my progress in perfect fashion, providing an easy rhythm and keeping my legs moving.

I was entranced for the entire chapter, more accurately the remainder of the book. This book made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think. I loved it. If YOU made it through this entire review, you deserve a gold star. I'm sorry for running on so long; I just simply can't say enough wonderful things to do this book justice. If you haven't checked it out, I highly recommend you do so. Meanwhile, I'm moving on to the next Walt Longmire book. Johnson said he had to continue the lives of these characters because he too was left wondering where they went and what they did after the conclusion. I'm so glad. If this was the end of Walt, Henry, Vic and gang, I'd be devastated!

Happy Reading!


Kay August 3, 2008 at 12:52 PM  

I am reading this one too right now. Slowly. I'm thinking it may be a good one for the mystery book group that I moderate. I think it will appeal to both man and women and that's sometimes a little hard to maneuver. Great review! I have a friend who lives in Wyoming and she loved it as well.

Jen August 3, 2008 at 3:06 PM  

Hi Kay, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I agree with you. This would be a good book for either gender. I'm envious that you have a mystery book group. I've been trying to find one close to me, but I haven't had much luck yet. For now I'll simply enjoy chatting with the folks who stop by and read my reviews, I guess!

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