When a novel begins with, “Bob Barnes says they got a dead body out on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land,” you’d be sure that murder was afoot. But in "The Cold Dish," Walt Longmire, Sheriff of Absaroka County, thinks the drunken hunters merely saw a dead sheep. The Sheriff is told to bring beer when he goes out to investigate. So, he does what any seasoned Sheriff would do – he manipulates his bored, testy, always swearing, deputy Vic (short for Victoria) to head out to the sheep in question, heads home early and keeps the six-pack.
But, his thoughts as he sits in his ‘under construction’ house, are never far from the job, even as he polishes off the Rainier by himself. He doesn’t need a file in front of him to remember the details of one horrific event when justice was not served. The racially charged case that troubles him involves a young Indian girl with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome who had been raped three years before, but her case had only recently come to trial. He muses over injustice in the world, and what he, as the investigating officer on the case, might have done differently. Then Vic reports that the dead body found among the sheep is one of the alleged rapists.
Melissa Little Bird’s attackers received a slap on the wrist, but is someone making up for the lapse in the law? When the second of Little Bird’s attackers is killed, Longmire and his lifelong friend, Henry Standing Bear, owner of the local watering hole and Walt’s occasional liaison with the Reservation, must choose whom to protect.
What follows is an extremely well written modern Western mystery, with honest dialogue, and complex, realistic characters dealing with serious issues in a harsh world. Friend and foe alike are under suspicion as the cases develop and overlap next to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, in sight of the breathtaking Bighorn Mountains. A century of distrust among the area residents is not helped by the deaths or the investigations.
Johnson has accurately portrayed the hollowness of being a widower, the severity of an unforgiving winter that impedes pursuits, the challenge of forensic analysis without a lab close by, the search for a 125 year old .45-70 Sharpe’s Buffalo rifle, the emptiness of having an estranged daughter, and the issue of an upcoming election for Sheriff. This multi-dimensional background to the central story creates an absorbing introduction to the Longmire series of novels.
Homage is paid to Cheyenne culture throughout “The Cold Dish,” but a haunting scene late in the book will stay with me forever. Imagine echoes of braves singing, whispering to Longmire, and playing drums alongside him during a blizzard on a mountainside, as he fights the pull to the Camp of the Dead. One voice among many says, “Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking.”
Johnson now lives on a ranch in Wyoming and was a law enforcement officer for a few years, although in a large eastern city. In order to get the feel of a Western County Sheriff’s job right for his books, he shadowed a Sheriff friend of his back in Wyoming.
If you have watched “Longmire,” the TV show on A & E, you have met the Sheriff in the persona of Robert Taylor, the Australian actor who has captured the depth and pain of Longmire perfectly. The other actors in the show, most notably Lou Diamond Phillips, Katee Sackhoff, and Bailey Chase, are marvelous in their roles.
Please visit www.craigallenjohnson.com to learn more about Craig Johnson and his NYT bestselling, award-winning novels.