Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson

Title: The Dark Horse
Author: Craig Johnson
ISBN: 9780670020874, Viking, 2009
Genre: Police Procedural, #5 Walt Longmire mystery
Rating: A+

First Line: It was the third week of a high-plains October, and an unseasonably extended summer had baked the color from the landscape and had turned the rusted girders of the old bridge a thinned-out, tired brown.

When I began blogging last June, one of the very first authors I raved about was Craig Johnson. Get ready to listen to more raves because my opinion of him is unchanged.

In this fifth book of the series, we see the Sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, working undercover as an insurance agent in the tiny, ill-tempered town of Absalom. Absalom resident Wade Barstad, well-known womanizer and jerk-about-town, set fire to his barn. The fire roasted alive his wife's horses, which didn't set too well with Mary. Mary Barstad waited till Wade went to bed. She then proceeded to put six bullets in his head and set fire to the house. When the fire department showed up, Mary confessed to killing her husband. But the sheriff in that county smells a rat, and he soon has Walt Longmire sniffing the very same eau de rongeur. Seeing as how most Absalom residents would just as soon shoot strangers as look at 'em, will Walt have enough time to figure out what really happened?

Although Johnson writes of his corner of Wyoming as if it's a character in and of itself, it's really the two-legged ones for whom you want to read this series. Each a rugged individualist, learning everyone's outlooks on life as well as their relationships with the other characters is the meat and potatoes of these books. The mystery is the huge wedge of lemon meringue pie that puts a satisfied PAID to the entire meal.

It's difficult to write a novel about the West and not have the landscape have its say. Just ask Hillerman or Bowen or Box...or Craig Johnson:

I thought about how we tilled and cultivated the land, planted trees on it, fenced it, built houses on it, and did everything we could to hold off the eternity of distance-- anything to give the landscape some sort of human scale. No matter what we did to try and form the West, however, the West inevitably formed us instead.

Walt Longmire was raised by his mother to respect and help the young, the old and the infirm. He's the type of person who can stare at the wall around a pay phone and think

People had written and scratched things so deeply that re-paintings had only heightened the sentiment. I wondered if Custer really wore Arrow shirts, if DD still loved NT, if the eleven kids that got left at the parking lot were still beating the Broncos twenty-four to three, or if 758-4331 was still a good time. I thought about the love, heartbreaks, and desperate passions that had been played out through the phone in my hand....

No matter how he may try to dissemble, when the chips are down you want Walt Longmire guarding your back. The man who can wonder about DD and NT truly gives a damn.

The book is told in two alternating time frames: the present while Walt is undercover, and the two weeks leading to his arrival in Absalom. Although this had me chafing at the bit a few times, it did serve two purposes: reminding us why Walt thought Mary Barstad was important enough to risk his life for, and giving us doses of Walt's co-workers and friends who couldn't follow him into this investigation. This series isn't the Walt Longmire Show; the secondary characters are just as well-drawn and easy to get attached to as he is.

Although I still doubt the wisdom of having a character like Walt go undercover practically on his own home turf, I loved this book. In a nostalgic post a few days ago, I mentioned being horse crazy, which was a bit prophetic. The Dark Horse was drawing to a close. Walt had to save someone's life and the only transportation available to take him down off a high mesa and toward help was a magnificent black horse. I swear, if someone had interrupted me at that moment, I wouldn't have bothered with a gun or a baseball bat or a scream of rage. I would've let fly with one of my Spontaneous Combustion Looks-- guaranteed to flash fry the recipient down to his Tony Lamas in one-tenth of a second.

Craig Johnson turned back my clock. While my adult brain was being very well taken care of, I was also a child, sitting here with my eyes glued to the page, reading about a hero and a horse and a race against time. Not many writers are skilled enough to satisfy on so many levels. Johnson is one of the few.


  1. I really need to start this series. I have the first one in audio. Too many books, not enough time.

  2. I love it when you rave! I definitely need to try one of his books.

  3. Craig Johnson is an amazing writer. I read Cold Dish after a book club friend raved about. She even has a "Walt Longmire for Sheriff" bumper sticker on her car :o) It still ranks as one of the best mysteries I've ever read.

    He's come to our book club twice and will visit again in August. He is a dynamic speaker and a lot of fun. We are reading Dark Horse as our selection earlier that month and then having a special meeting so that we can accomodate his schedule.

    I blogged about Dark Horse as one of my "Waiting on Wednesday" memes.

    It's great to hear other readers enjoy him as much as I do!

  4. If the book is as interesting as your review, it must be good!

  5. I haven't heard about Craig Johnson but that's just another reason why I am glad I know your blog, so I can hear about this writer and countless others that otherwise I wouldn't have known of. I like good characterization, especially in mysteries and thrillers so it definitely seems the right author for me.

  6. I knew you would like it but an A+ tells me it is really, really good. And then I read your review. I absolutely need to keep going with this series.

  7. I've never been partial to books set in the West, but your review makes me itching to get my hands on this series. It sounds really good.

  8. Beth--A few clones would be nice, eh?

    Kathy--I'd suggest starting with The Cold Dish because it's the perfect set-up for all the characters.

    Kathy--I would absolutely LOVE to have one of those bumper stickers!!!

    Dorte--The entire series is excellent!

    Lilly--Johnson has created some wonderful characters in this mystery series, so I certainly hope you get a chance to read at least one!

    Margot--You really should!

    Belle--I may turn you into a Western Mystery Lover. You know that, don't you? :o)

  9. I came over here from your Top Ten post to check this one out. It is going on my wish list as soon as I leave here!

  10. Sharon-- Good! I love Johnson's books!


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