I am grateful for many things, one of which is that I have lived long enough to witness the resurgence of the western novel. Westerns did not go away, but they did seem to sink beneath the public notice, so to speak, rising every 10 years or so with a novel here or there. Presently, it seems that every week or so, a new title in the genre --- whether traditional or contemporary --- is released by a major publisher. These books are keepers of the type that stay on the owner’s bookshelves for years and are lent out carefully and begrudgingly.
"I am not as familiar with the Longmire books as I should be (a shortcoming I intend to begin remedying immediately), but Johnson’s style is such that readers both new and familiar feel welcome. From the first paragraph, the atmosphere is akin to being invited to come in and sit for a spell: there’s a story to be told."
This week, we have AS THE CROW FLIES, a contemporary western mystery by Craig Johnson. The timing is fortuitous; this is the eighth in the series of Walt Longmire mysteries, and a new television program based on the character and bearing his surname premieres Sunday, June 3rd on A&E. I am not as familiar with the Longmire books as I should be (a shortcoming I intend to begin remedying immediately), but Johnson’s style is such that readers both new and familiar feel welcome. From the first paragraph, the atmosphere is akin to being invited to come in and sit for a spell: there’s a story to be told.
AS THE CROW FLIES puts Wyoming Sheriff Longmire in Montana, on the Cheyenne Nation. He is involved in the planning of his daughter’s wedding with his long-time friend, Henry Standing Bear. If it sounds like the blind leading the blind, it is indeed, particularly when a complication rears its head two weeks before the planned nuptials. The complication and its resolution are worth the price of admission alone, but this is a western --- and a mystery to boot --- so Johnson wastes little time in getting to the heart of things.
That heart, if you will, is a particularly violent death of a young woman. Longmire and Bear happen to witness the incident, which initially is thought to be a suicide but quickly becomes the subject of a homicide investigation. Longmire is far outside of his jurisdiction, but the newly appointed tribal police chief is in over her head. Lolo Long is an Iraqi war veteran, but there is little that her honorable experience overseas has done to prepare her for her new position, which has nuances, difficulties and procedures that would take her years to learn, if she can learn them at all. She accepts an offer of assistance from Longmire --- grudgingly at first --- and the two form a somewhat prickly but ultimately comfortable alliance as they attempt to follow an extremely faint evidentiary trail, which is short on clues but abundant with likely suspects.
The victim’s husband is the most obvious, of course, but a local drug dealer and a troublemaker with a history of violence are likely culprits as well. Longmire uses a number of methods, orthodox and otherwise, to gather evidence. In the end, though, it's the murderer who comes to Longmire, just as he begins to get close. It’s an encounter that Longmire may not walk away from.
Longmire is a likable, accessible protagonist. While this may not be a country for old men, Montana and (by extension) Wyoming appear not to have gotten that message yet. Longmire himself notes the passage of time; although he is not always entirely comfortable in his slowly growing array of physical limitations, he is accepting of the ones he cannot change. However, his canny powers of deduction and observation hold him in good stead. The conclusion of AS THE CROW FLIES goes on without a hitch --- well, maybe with just one --- and the entire book is ultimately something that Johnson and his readers can crow about.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 1, 2012