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Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Cold Dish

I had wanted to read Craig Johnson's detective novels since I heard him talk at the National Book Festival in the fall of 2009. He was funny and charming and lovely. But I didn't get around to it until now --- other books interfered, as they always do.

When I finally went to the library last week and picked up the first entry of his Walter Longmire series, The Cold Dish, I had already had a feeling I'd like it. And it gave me all I had expected and then some.

For a couple of reasons, I decided to read the book slowly. Perhaps it has to do with a new habit I have learned from reading on Kindle. Plus I am trying to savor things more lately. Most of all, though, I love the details in his narrative about the rural life in Wyoming. Reading the book was almost like strolling alongside the 50-something sheriff Walter in Absaroka County, gazing into the breath-taking mountains around you, and listening to the banters between Walter and his best friend Henry Standing Bear. I loved all this so much that I didn't want to leave them too soon. So I read as slowly as I could, resisting the pull of the whodunit to rush ahead.

The whodunit wasn't too hard to guess. There were the usual red herrings and diversions thrown in the reader's path. I got it pretty early on. None of it detracted from the joy of reading the book.

Johnson gives us an assortment of colorful locals: The aforementioned sheriff Walter, who shares a lot of traits with, of all people, Kurt Wallander; Henry, the Indian with a colorful past and far from a sidekick; Walter's foul-mouthed but extremely efficient deputy, a policewoman transplanted from South Philadelphia; the sheriff before Walter, a tough and crusty old man; the list goes on and on. Most characters have nothing to do the plot, but are introduced as part of the life, and I'm all the more grateful for them. They are too spectacularly eccentric to be the product of anyone's imagination; they must be real. The most important character may be the Bear, whose premise could have easily slipped into a cliche of the Noble Savage or the Magical Indian. The only way for this character and their friendship to work is if this is all real. Apparently, it is. Johnson really does have an Indian friend and, judging from the book's Acknowledgments, his name really is Henry Standing Bear. He also alluded to Henry in his talk at the National Book Festival. Indeed, the dialogues between Walter and Henry feel so palpably true that they have to be real.

One of the many charms of Johnson's novel is his amusing way of referencing classic literature in the most unexpected context: including Hemingway, Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dickens, ... And, of course, Dr. Doyle's immortal detective, and twice at that! For example, at one point, Walter went to visit a millionaire scouting expert in the neighborhood to get some information about the special deadly murder weapon. In the millionaire's house, he first ran into the man's "head wrangler" watching a soft-porn movie in the kitchen --- "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Walter commented:
I wasn't sure if D.H. Lawrence would have recognized his work, but the plastic surgeon specializing in breast enhancement would have recognized his.

Beyond the chuckles, however, Johnson's style is also impeccable and full of surprising grace and beauty. Reading it slowly is like drinking the crisp, pure morning air of the mountains under the Wyoming sky.

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