Friday, January 15, 2010

THE DARK HORSE - Craig Johnson

FIRST LINE: "It was the third week of a high-plains October, and an unseasonably extended summer had baked the color from the landscape and had turned the rusted girders of the old bridge a thinned-out, tired brown."

THE DARK HORSE finds Sheriff Walt Longmire in Absalom, Wyoming under cover. When Mary Barsad is brought to the Absaroka jail after murdering her husband, Walt questions her guilt. Mary confessed to the murder, but Walt isn't convinced; he wants to learn for himself what the facts of the case are, so he heads to Powder Junction disguised as an insurance inspector and finds an entire town full of folks with motives to kill Mary's husband, the despicable Wade Barsad.

THE DARK HORSE is Craig Johnson's fifth dance with the characters of Absaroka County, and he hasn't lost one iota of quality in those characters, in the plotting, in the dialogue, nothing. Johnson sets the leisurely pace of small town Wyoming and a sheriff on the verge of retirement. But the slower pace doesn't mean less adventure, and it definitely doesn't mean the book is easy to put down. What it does create is a richer setting and characters that penetrate your soul.

The dialogue is undoubtedly one of my favorite elements of a Craig Johnson novel. The turns of phrase and colorful idioms create not only humor in his characters, but also warmth.

"I started to climb into the driver's seat but stopped when he called out to me again. 'Hey youngster, I didn't catch your name.'

I paused for only a second, continuing to look down the valley at the small town. 'I didn't throw it.'"
It's that warmth that makes readers care about and want to befriend Walt, Henry, Vic, Ruby, Poncho, and especially Dog.

"By the time I got there, I discovered that Dog's idea of 'stay' was
disinterestedly springing a few western cottontails from the brush. He wandered back in my direction when I called him, marking each stand of sage as he came, and finally rested his muscled behind on my foot. I ruffled his ears, my hand stretching a full octave across his massive head. I peeled some fur back to look at the bullet furrow across his thick skull. 'Is that your idea of stay?' He smiled up at me, revealing rows of teeth that shone in the evening moonlight."


Another characteristic of the Walt Longmire novels I admire is Johnson's ability to find exactly the right balance. Every book is meticulously packed with adventure, mystery, intimacy, friendship and humor. What the Longmire novels lack in eye-rolling moments or "Oh-come-on" moments, they more than make up for in "I-know-that-feeling" moments. And if you haven't discovered the feeling in your own life experiences, you walk away from the books convinced you now have. Craig Johnson will often tell the stories of people asking for the phone numbers of Vic or Walt. And it's this perfect balance in his writing that creates the mirage. Certainly these people MUST exist. They are simply too real not to exist.



THE DARK HORSE is what Craig Johnson calls his "high plains noir" novel. I call it another astonishing work that blurs the genre lines. Part literary, part crime fiction, part western, all exemplary.



As I've done with the previous four Walt Longmire books, I listened to the audio book in addition to reading the print version. And once again it was read by my favorite narrator, George Guidall. George not only creates a voice that is perfect for the veteran sheriff, he also nails the nuances Johnson layers throughout the novel. He enhances the humor, Vic's and Henry's sarcasm, and especially the sentimentality. Guidall's pitch, tone and pacing are equally responsible for bringing these books to life. As I believe every crime fiction fan should experience a James Lee Burke novel narrated by Mark Hammer, I also believe every crime fiction fan should experience a Craig Johnson novel narrated by George Guidall. And you have not fully lived until you hear George Guidall sing "Ruby" or "Cattle Call" as Walt Longmire.



THE DARK HORSE is available from Viking Penguin in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-670-02087-4). A trade paper version will be available in May of 2010. The audio book is published by Recorded Books.

6 comments:

Kay January 15, 2010 at 9:07 AM  

I absolutely love this series. I have been keeping this one back for a while in order to have one more to read. I haven't tried the audio versions, but your enthusiasm has convinced me to see if I can find them. Thanks for sharing, Jen!

Joe Barone January 15, 2010 at 9:22 AM  

I enjoy these books. I especially liked Another Man's Moccasins.

Naomi Johnson January 15, 2010 at 4:12 PM  

I'll never be able to thank you enough for pointing me toward Johnson's books. He's so talented, I'm certain that if I look hard enough I'll find him in my family tree.

Jen Forbus January 15, 2010 at 8:48 PM  

Thanks for the comments today everyone! I'm with all of you, this is one of my all-time favorite series. Joe, you're right. ANOTHER MAN'S MOCCASINS is wonderful. It has my favorite line in it! But I really love them all. They are treasures!

And Naomi, it's only fair. I wouldn't have known about Michael Koryta were it not for you!

Kay this series is one of my absolute favs on audio book. George Guidall just does an outstanding job. Definitely see if you can get your hands on it. My library has all of them and they are gems!!

le0pard13 January 15, 2010 at 9:15 PM  

Great review, Jen. I'm getting back into the series in two more audiobooks, and looking forward to returning to Wyoming. Thanks, Jen.

Beth F January 28, 2010 at 7:05 AM  

I don't know what's wrong with me -- I've had the first of this series for a couple of years or so. I need to read it!

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