Book Review: Land of Wolves by Craig Johnson
By Larry ClowSeptember 17, 2019
Land of Wolves is the new novel in Craig Johnson’s beloved New York Times bestselling Longmire series, in which Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire is neck-deep in the investigation of what could or could not be the suicidal hanging of a shepherd.
After a journey to the deserts of Mexico in his last novel, Craig Johnson brings Sheriff Walt Longmire back home to Absaroka County, Wyoming, in Land of Wolves, the newest entry in the long-running mystery series. And while coming home is something of a cold comfort for Walt, it will be a welcome return for fans—and a great entry point for new readers looking to dive into the series.
Land of Wolves picks up some few months after the events of Depth of Winter, in which Walt went rogue and ventured south in order to rescue his daughter and settle things once and for all with Tomás Bidarte, the vicious leader of a drug cartel who had become Walt’s arch-nemesis. Back in Wyoming, Walt is slowly recovering from the wounds he sustained while in Mexico. Some traces of the battle, like the rakish scar on his face, are apparent, but his psychic and emotional wounds remain less obvious. He’s slower, less sure of himself and his place in his community, and longing for a return to normalcy.
Unfortunately, in Absaroka County, that all too often means there’s a murder case that needs solving. In this case, a dead sheep in the Bighorn Mountains leads Walt to a dead shepherd. It’s been made to look as if the dead man killed himself, but Walt suspects there more at play. The shepherd worked for Abe Extepare, the grizzled patriarch of a wealthy Basque family of ranchers with a history of violence. As Abe’s other shepherds attest, he was never an easy boss, and the dead shepherd liked to make trouble.
The case grows more complicated, and for Walt, it’s a welcome distraction from coming to terms with the limits he reached and the lines he crossed in Mexico. As his lead deputy/love interest Vic Moretti informs him, there’s an office pool on how and when Walt’s going to land himself in the hospital again, but he’s undeterred.
They’d warned me that I needed more bed rest, but I’d finished rereading all four volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time and I was going stir-crazy. They’d informed me that with deep-tissue, solid-organ damage, the repair was really up to the organ itself, and that if I wasn’t careful, I was courting disaster—or at least asking it out on a first date.
Walt’s injuries open the door for Johnson to start introducing, little by little, some changes to the series. Vic and fellow deputy Santiago Saizarbitoria take more prominent roles in the investigation, and Johnson hints at some possible transitions in the sheriff’s department. Other changes are less drastic (well, as drastic as changes can get in a long-running mystery series) and more comical: Walt gets a computer, learns how to send emails, and takes an unwelcome crash course in the world of YouTube “investigators.” As always, Johnson excels at balancing knotty plots, heavy themes, and light-hearted touches. The Longmire book series is rapidly approaching some two dozen entries, counting novellas and short story collections, and while Johnson makes it look easy, careful readers will see how difficult it is to hit the right notes so often.
While Depth of Winter was more concerned with cinematic action, Land of Wolves is, like Walt himself, more deliberate and contemplative. Along with the murder investigation, Walt must also contend with a rogue wolf that’s been sighted in the Bighorn Mountains. The wolf sighting starts a county-wide panic, but for Walt, the animal—which always seems to appear and vanish at will, and always at some consequential moment—is an omen, a sign of something that Walt can’t quite figure out. He’s getting other signs, too, in the form of pieces of the play money his friend and now-deceased spiritual guide Virgil White Buffalo loved to hand out. Nor can Walt figure out how Abe Extepare’s young grandson, the center of a familial tug of war between Abe and his daughter and son-in-law, figures into the mysterious proceedings.
“Does it seem like this winter has been long?”
She snorted. “It’s the high plains, Walt, every winter is an ice age.”
“Maybe my blood thinned down there in Mexico.”
“Well, you lost enough of it.” She sat the mug down and looked up at me. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Stifling a sigh, I looked down Main Street at the town where I was born, where I’d married and raised a child, where I’d lost my wife, and where now everything felt strange. “I’m…I’m having trouble getting back.”
After the bombastic action of the last book, Land of Wolves is a welcome break. Longtime Longmire fans will be glad to see Walt back at home, and Johnson seeds plenty of callbacks to previous books throughout the narrative, a sign that Walt’s life has come somewhat full circle, that the Longmire we know now is a far different man than the one we met so many books ago. Even better, the book functions as an excellent introduction for new readers. Land of Wolves makes it easy for newcomers to dive head-first into an established series, and for that alone, Johnson deserves credit.
There are a few hiccups. The central mystery sputters near the book’s conclusion, with motivations and relationships less clear than they could be. Some promising plot points and character notes don’t go anywhere. The missteps are minor, though, and overall, Land of Wolves is a fantastic entry in a series that, remarkably, gets better with each book.