Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Cold Dish

Oh, my dear reader friends, there is nothing like a good mystery.  And Craig Johnson's The Cold Dish:  A Longmire Mystery isn't a good mystery, it's a great mystery.  In it we meet Walt Longmire, sheriff to the small town of Durant, Wyoming, a sleepy town whose usual crime reports read of smashed mailboxes, stolen snowmen, and the occasional drive-by egging.  Sheriff Longmire is still haunted, however, by the ghost of a far more serious crime, the gang-rape of a young Cheyenne girl, and the light sentences ultimately handed down to her attackers.  His ghosts begin to come alive when one of the rapists is found dead and signs begin to point away from a mere hunting accident and toward a killer bent on revenge.

Let me begin by saying that I am picky when it comes to crime novels.  Back in my glory days, in that long lost age when I kept my highlights as current as my fashion choices and my tags occasionally read "Dry Clean Only", I was a criminal attorney.  I practiced several years of criminal defense (keep it nice, people; everyone hates a criminal defense attorney until they need one) with a brief but memorable stint in prosecution.  I loved criminal law.  If I'm to be honest, I still love criminal law.  Seedy?  A bit.  Disturbing?  Often.  Hilarious?  More often than you'd think.  Each case is a puzzle to be solved and the stories are interesting stories.  So there is no excuse for a boring crime novel and I expect the plots of fictional scenarios to hold a candle to those in which I've played a nominal role in real life.  I also expect them to be realistic.  No "that would never EVER happen in real life" law enforcement moments please.  I get enough of those from CSI.  I will abandon your book and never look back.

All of that being said, The Cold Dish met my expectations and then exceeded them.  Johnson's handling of the ins and outs of crime investigation are spot on and the mystery held my attention and kept me guessing until the very end.  And his characters. Oh, his characters.  No two dimensional stock characters here, my friends.  From Longmire himself, who by the story's end I felt a kinship with like a long lost (rather grumpy) uncle, to his best friend, the charismatic Henry Standing Bear, to the waitress at the local diner, Johnson gives each person life and depth and sparkle in their eyes.  I find myself wondering what they are up to these days.

One of the greatest characters in this novel, though, is Wyoming itself.  I love it when a novelist makes his landscape come alive and I've never seen it done better.  Aside from a brief pass-through on the way to North Dakota when I was a teenager, I know Wyoming as well as I do the dark side of the moon.  After reading the combined descriptions of the countryside, the people (both those in Durant proper and the Native Americans on "the Rez"), and even the weather, I feel like I've vacationed there.  I can smell the snow on the sharp wind coming down from the mountains, hear the plaintive bleating of sheep.  Superbly crafted.

Last but certainly not least, this book is funny.  Laugh-out-loud, annoy-your-spouse-by-reading-random-passages-out-loud, funny.  Johnson weaves hilarious circumstances and witty dialogue throughout the mystery without sacrificing a shred of realism.  To the very last page, nay the very last line of dialogue, this book had me smiling.  If all the books in the Longmire series are as excellent as The Cold Dish, I simply cannot wait for a second helping.  

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