Wait for Signs: Twelve Longmire Stories
Craig Johnson is not known as a short story writer. He has made a name for himself with his remarkable Walt Longmire series, which features a plain-spoken, bent but not broken Wyoming sheriff and a fine supporting cast. All have been brought to visual life in the television series “Longmire,” which is almost as good as the numerous novels that have been advancing Longmire’s life for over a decade. Johnson does write the occasional short story, however, and he excels at it --- so much so that “Old Indian Trick,” his first effort in that format, won a Tony Hillerman Prize for Best Short Story.
You will find “Old Indian Trick” in WAIT FOR SIGNS, a collection of an even dozen Walt Longmire short stories. As Johnson hastens to indicate to us in the Acknowledgements section that opens the book, not all of these stories are mysteries; they may have mysterious elements, but some are just stories about Walt and those whom he loves, a group that includes his daughter Cady, his roughly fetching deputy Vic, and his best friend Henry. Of the latter, let it be known that Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Henry Standing Bear on the television version, writes the introduction to this book. If you wanted/needed an extra excuse to purchase this volume, there it is. It makes WAIT FOR SIGNS an uninterrupted pleasure to read from front to back.
"Casual fans of the series...might be somewhat confused for a moment as relationships and situations leap ahead. But that should not interfere with your reading pleasure, given Johnson’s considerable literary chops."
If it seems like those opening paragraphs wandered a bit (and yes, they did), it is only because the setting for Johnson’s series provides more than enough room to move about. Walt is the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, which, as he advises the reader at one point in “Ministerial Aid,” is the least populated county in the state, but is about the size of Vermont or New Hampshire. That makes for a lot of lonely territory to cover, and by the time one gets from the opening words of “Old Indian Trick” to the closing sentences of the wonderfully titled “Petunia, Bandit Queen of the Bighorns,” enough of the surface of Walt’s domain and Johnson’s equally immense talent has been scratched to tempt and satisfy both the casual reader and the hardcore fan.
Virtually all of the stories have something to recommend them. The aforementioned “Old Indian Trick,” in which an elderly Indian pulls the “who” in “whodunit” seemingly out of the air, is my favorite, but hey, it won an award. “Messenger” runs close behind it, one of those stories that is not a mystery but more of a...thriller of sorts, with not one but two ticking clocks that are played out in what the folks out west call a “convenience.” It’s quite a story, and I wager that after reading it, you will never go past a rest area again without thinking of it. Nor will you read “Thankstaking” without thinking of family gatherings past, present and, yes, future, as Walt and Henry create a new definition of justice on a holiday night. The same is somewhat true of the previously mentioned “Ministerial Aid,” wherein Walt is mistaken for someone else and uses the case of mistaken identity to right a wrong.
A number of the stories deal with Christmas, actually --- and there is a reason for that, set out in Johnson’s Acknowledgements --- but my favorite of them all is the bittersweet “Slick-Tongued Devil,” in which a despicable cad knocks on the wrong door at the wrong time. Or maybe it’s the right one, and his timing is perfect. The story is a bit of a puzzle, but a good one, and reveals a rarely seen side of Walt’s multifaceted personality.
The stories in WAIT FOR SIGNS are presented in roughly chronological order, meant to supplement the Longmire canon rather than establish it. Casual fans of the series (particularly those who primarily know the character from the television adaptation) might be somewhat confused for a moment as relationships and situations leap ahead. But that should not interfere with your reading pleasure, given Johnson’s considerable literary chops. Come for the short stories, and stay for the longer works, which are available elsewhere.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 24, 2014