The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson is the first modern western in the Walt Longmire series about a Wyoming sheriff. Registered commenters below will be entered for a chance to win an advanced reader's copy of Craig Johnson's upcoming collection of Walt Longmire short stories, Wait for Signs!
The first novel in the enormously popular Longmire series, The Cold Dish (2004) by Craig Johnson, gave me the vibe that I’ve known the main characters all my reading life and I’m enjoying, say, the twenty-fifth installment in the series, not the debut. All superior mystery and crime series, or at least the ones I prefer, make you feel at home—immediately relaxed. Longmire #1 succeeds in this respect and still offers a fresh voice in a genre that has gotten drier and drier since Ross Macdonald went to the great fedora bar in the sky.
So what’s eating Sheriff Walt Longmire in book one? For starters, a lot. His wife Martha died a few years before, and he struggles daily with the loss. The open emotional wound is deep and he suspects there’s no closure to be found. Added to this heartbreak is the widening estrangement with his beloved grown daughter, Cady, as they each deal with their continuing grief.
The day job doesn’t seem to be helping matters. Walt is blamed by some irate citizens after a group of four boys get too light a sentence for brutally raping a young Cheyenne girl in a basement. When one of the accused rapists, Cody Pritchard, is found dead in the woods, it appears to be a hunting accident, but Walt suspects otherwise. It’s revenge: the dish being served by the titular title.
Friends and colleagues in Longmire’s life are deeply conflicted individuals, much like Walt himself, and each character could be the star of his/her own series. Take Victoria “Vic” Moretti. She’s a deputy with a profane mouth and deadly shot, and she’s the one subordinate who is not afraid to tell Walt his crap stinks from time to time. But under that hardboiled exterior, there’s a vulnerability that could unravel her sensibilities. Then there’s Henry Standing Bear whose loyalty to his sheriff friend extends him beyond the law which has increasingly complicated consequences as this story, and further entries, unfold. Like Vic, Henry needs to occasionally steer the sheriff in the right direction. He may be the fullest sidekick to come down the line since Hawk from Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series.
Johnson writes about modern Wyoming like it’s the Old West with its live-by-the-gun mentality. With the exception of technological conveniences, Walt Longmire could be a contemporary of Lonesome Dove’s Gus and Woodrow. He’s a man bound by honor but is quick to toss rules that prevent justice from being realized. Though Longmire may think he wants to retire, to throw in the towel, a hero is rising up his strong moral spine and he’ll do his best to make sure the dish of vengeance isn’t served during his watch.
And like the other modern knight errant Philip Marlowe that he owes a debt to, Mr. Johnson infuses passages with Chandleresque beauty like:
On the afternoon of June 25th, 1876, as the heat waves rolled from the buffalo grass, giving the impression of a breeze that did not exist, Colonel George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the Seventh Cavalry rode into the valley of the Little Big Horn. Also that afternoon, Davey Force, a pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, went six for six against Chicago, who scored four runs in the ninth to pull out a 14 to 13 victory. Custer was not so lucky.
In addition to the sharp prose, it should also be mentioned that not since Larry McMurtry hasdialogue seemed so natural—revealing much about these characters and their relationships—that at times you feel like you are sitting in on a conversation as opposed to reading a book.
If you missed this book but have already tried others in the Longmire series or have watched the hit A&E television show, you may think you don’t need to go back to this series opener. But don’t skip over The Cold Dish because it gives much-deserved rich character and ongoing plot development in one of the finest debuts from an author in any genre.
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Comment below for a chance to win an advanced reader's copy of Wait for Signs (12 Longmire Stories) by Craig Johnson, not due out until October! To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below. TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In! Wait for Signs Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN. A purchase does not improve your chances of winning. Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry. To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2014/07/first-in-series-the-cold-dish-by-craig-johnson-edward-a-grainger-walt-longmire-adaptation beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) August 14, 2014. Sweepstakes ends 1:59 .m. ET August 21, 2014. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.