Review: Depth of Winter by Craig Johnson
By Larry ClowSeptember 6, 2018
Depth of Winter by Craig Johnson is the 15th book in the Longmire Mystery series, where the beleaguered sheriff finds himself in unfamiliar territory.
In Depth of Winter, Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire finds himself out of his element. Readers of Craig Johnson’s long-running series may also find themselves in similarly strange territory. Gone are the familiar locations and friendly faces of Walt’s hometown of Absaroka County. Instead, the sheriff is in the deserts of northern Mexico, with few friends and many enemies waiting for him. He’s there to rescue his daughter, Cady, from Tomás Bidarte, the vicious leader of a drug cartel.
It’s most likely a suicide mission, but in true form, Walt is able to see some beauty in his hopeless situation in a blasted landscape:
There were mountains rising behind and in the stark moonlight, they looked like cardboard cutouts in some old serial-western studio back lot. There was a large, humped massif to the left shaped a little like Cloud Peak back home in the Bighorn Mountains, and there was a rough-looking road that split the tiny village and traveled up through the foothills before disappearing over a hill. There was a pass, a forbidding gateway that led higher into the black, charred lava rock that looked like scorched earth and that looked nothing like Absaroka County.
Johnson’s prose is as sharp as ever. Plucking Walt from the confines of his home county and dropping him in the desert gives Johnson the chance to get literary—writer Ambrose Bierce and Don Quixote figure heavily into Walt’s ruminations about Mexico—and cinematic. Depth of Winter isn’t so much a mystery as it is a Western, and Johnson gives the action the sort of big-screen treatment it deserves. There are shades of The Wild Bunch as Walt and his motley crew of allies prepare to infiltrate Bidarte’s compound. And the action is big, well-choreographed, and thrilling. There are brawls, shootouts, and some literally explosive moments, and they’re all suspenseful and well-earned.
At the heart of the book is Walt’s ongoing internal conflict about when killing is justified. As Walt makes his way through the desert, Johnson seems unwilling to let his protagonist off the hook. Wave after wave of cartel henchmen come at Walt, and in general, he exercises mercy, even though he recognizes it may not be the correct choice. As one character says to Walt:
He shook his head at me. “We have an old saying in Mexio, bondad a un asesino construye ataúdes.” I waited as he stared back at me, the dead eyes completely hidden by the heavy sunglasses. “Kindness to a killer builds coffins.”
In fact, Walt finds himself in this quandary so often that, by the book’s end, the motif is repetitive. How many times can Walt let a killer slip away only to later face that same killer again and under even worse circumstances? But perhaps that’s Johnson’s point. The reader knows the sort of situation Walt’s in and has seen it play out onscreen hundreds of times. But this is new territory for Walt, and his stoicism and moral clarity are just as much weapons as his Colt .45 and Bowie knife.
None of that is to say Depth of Winter is a ponderous slugfest. The narrative is propulsive and rarely stops, from Walt’s escape from a U.S. border patrol station that opens the novel to the tense finale that’s gripping, though predictable. And though the stakes are high, Johnson deploys his usual wit and humor to lighten the mood. Walt and his friends’ plan to sneak into Mexico leads to a comedy of errors and, ultimately, a great fight scene. It’s a goofy idea and stretches some credibility, but it ultimately works thanks to the strength of Johnson’s writing and his characters.
As the latest entry in the Longmire series, Depth of Winter has a lot of work to do. It has to wrap up cliffhangers from the previous book, The Western Star, function as a standalone novel, and also move Walt’s story forward. It succeeds on all three counts, but the book is most interesting in that, by the end, it’s clear that Walt is permanently in unfamiliar territory. The events of Depth of Winter have changed him irrevocably, and it will be fascinating to see what Johnson has in store next for Wyoming’s most famous sheriff.