Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Any Other Name by Craig Johnson

What makes a good mystery novel? Not, I think, the puzzle itself, although it has to be complex enough to hold the reader's interest but not so complex as to be artificial and preposterous (the problem these days with many of the Agatha Christie murder mysteries). The mystery novels that work best for me have vivid, interesting protagonists: Sherlock Holmes, Travis McGee, Commessario Guido Brunetti, Kurt Wallender, Harry Bosch, Mickey Haller, John Rebus, and now Walt Longmire.

Longmire, the creation of Craig Johnson, is a contemporary sheriff in Absaroka County, Wyoming. He's in his 40s, a widower, has a married adult daughter, drinks Rainier beer, does not carry a cell phone, is a font of arcane knowledge (a third of all motel owners in the U.S. are called Patel, a surname that indicates they're members of a Gujarati Hindu subcaste), and can shoot both right and left-handed. He has a brash undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, formerly a Philadelphia homicide cop, he's friends with Henry Standing Bear, and his mentor and retired sheriff of Absaroka County, is Lucian Connally (who, finally out of patience with a cafe's service, shoots the coffee urn).

Any Other Name is Johnson's eleventh novel and from the first page we know we are in the hands of someone who knows exactly what he's doing. A former sheriff has committed suicide and his widow has asked Lucian to look into it. Turns out that the suicide was investigating some missing-persons cases and one thing leads to another. Aside from his powerful descriptions of Wyoming (Johnson lives in Ucross, WY, pop. 25), his dialogue is great. Here's a snippet;

Walt enters a modest post office with Dog, his dog. The postmaster says,

"This is a federal government facility, and dog's aren't allowed."
"He could be a service dog."

He looked at Dog and then at me doubtfully. "And what kind of service does he provide?"
I walked to the counter, and Dog followed as I leaned a hip against the edge and pulled out my badge wallet and watched it flip out of my hand again and fall onto the floor. Dog nudged it with his nose and then looked at me.
Stooping down, I scooped the thing up . . . "Obviously, he's not a retriever."

Longmier is sympathetic and resourceful, he has good friends and true, the bad guys are believably bad, the Wyoming landscape in winter is itself a character, and the puzzle is satisfyingly complex. What more can you want in a mystery novel?

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