by Cynthia Chow
We are so excited this week to have a review of Craig Johnson’s brand new Longmire mystery novel, A Serpent’s Tooth! We also have an interview with Craig and we are not only giving away a copy of the new book, but also of the new TV tie-in edition of an earlier book in the series, Death Without Company-details at the end of this post.
Editor’s Note, booksigning at Mysterious Galaxy: Not sure how we missed this, but Craig will be doing a booksigning at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego on June 7 at 7 p.m.-7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., Suite #302. If you cannot make it to the event, a link to order the book from Mysterious Galaxy is below–if you order before the signing you can request a signed copy.
A Serpent’s Tooth By Craig Johnson
Only in Absaroka County, Wyoming do the duties of Sheriff Walt Longmire include investigating the very helpful handyman angels that seem to be fixing the roof and cleaning out the gutters of one of the County’s elderly and “eccentric” citizens. The helpful angel turns out to be less ethereal and more fleet of foot, and Walt is soon on a manhunt for a fifteen year-old pantsless fugitive. The very polite, ignorant and naive Cord is believed to be one of the Lost Boys, young men turned out of polygamist communities where the elders consider the boys to be unwanted competition for their child brides. Walt learns that Cord had been reported missing in a nearby county by Sarah Tisdale, a wild child who ran from her home and fell in with a religious compound led by Roy Lynear, an obese force of power who preaches the Word of God backed up by artillery. Lynear is constantly accompanied by Tomas Bidarte, a cowboy “poet lariat” disturbingly handy with an eight-inch switchblade.
As the sheriff’s department more or less adopts Cord, Walt investigates the alarming compound that has begun intruding on the often crazy but mostly peaceful people of Absaroka County. Supporting and often mocking Walt is his beautiful undersheriff Victoria Moretti, the former detective from South Philadelphia who has a profanity-laden wit that is as sharp as her investigative skills. She and Walt continue to have an undefined and on-and-off relationship that is as confusing to Walt as it is essential to his soul.
Their investigation uncovers the alarming abuses of the religious compounds and then veers off to a very surprising development which could impact the entire country. Walt and Vic also encounter the usual denizens of Absaroka County, including a nudist building his own spaceship out of trash and a man who claims to be assigned as the bodyguard for Cord. That the man also believes himself to be Orrin Porter Rockwell, the two-hundred year old Son of Thunder and right arm and companion of Joseph Smith Jr. and Brigham Young–well that’s par for the course. Thankfully, Walt will again be aided by his best friend Henry Standing Bear, the “Cheyenne Nation” and voice of reason who keeps Walt grounded when chaos ensues.
Coinciding with the release of the ninth Walt Longmire mystery is the start of A&E’s second season of Longmire, the television series based on Johnson’s best-selling novels. Thankfully, success has not weakened Johnson’s writing and the author continues his delightful blend of low-keyed humor with the unique details and descriptions of the isolated Wyoming setting. There are always many details and layers to Johnson’s writing, and how many Westerns can boast references to Dune and My Friend Flicka? Walt’s voice is so engaging and the character so likable with his down-home, unflappable sheriff skills that combine with an astute understanding of the complexities of humans. As Vic points out, Walt’s heart and hope will always be his greatest strengths and his greatest weaknesses.
This is an absolutely wonderful series filled with humane characters often driven to their limits by tragedies and yet who continue to survive through humor, family, and friends.
Interview With Craig Johnson
KRL: How long have you been writing and when did your first book come out?
Craig: About ten years now. The Cold Dish came out in 2005.
KRL: Did you find it hard to get published?
Craig: Surprisingly, no; I think Kathryn Court over at Penguin just happened to be looking for something like Walt when he and I (metaphorically for me) landed on her desk.
KRL: Do you have a writing routine or just write when you can?
Craig: I have a ranch, so I get everything squared away with the animals pretty early and then make a big pot of coffee and start in.
KRL: How did you come up with the characters & setting idea for the Longmire books?
Craig: Wallace Stegner once said that the greatest piece of fiction ever written was the disclaimer at the beginning of every novel that states that none of the characters in this book are based off of anyone alive or dead… my life and everybody else’s is a buffet, so I feel free to take what I like.
KRL: “The Messenger” (short story) ties in with your donation program to contribute to the efforts to protect birds and other wildlife from suffering a similar fate as the owl in the short story. Tell us a little more about “The Poo-Poo Project.”
Craig: The Teton Raptor Center in Jackson, Wyoming developed a plan which they call The Poo-Poo Project, where they solicit contributions so that workers can place grates over the vent stacks in restrooms in state and federal parks. You see, owls and other boreal birds look for dark, close places to hole up and nest–unfortunately the vents are sometimes mistaken as nesting areas and they end up in the vaults below. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more ignominious end for such wonderful animals. The Poo-Poo Project is pretty simple in that the money which is contributed goes directly to the screening that volunteers place over the vents, thus saving hundreds of thousands of owls each year at a minimal cost.
KRL: How have your fans and the response to your books changed since the broadcast debut of Longmire? Do you feel any pressure to write in accordance to the television show?
Craig: Well, to answer the first part of your questions, I’ve got more of them now! To answer the second part, not really. I was writing my seventh book in the series when Hollywood found me and I’ll be writing about Walt and his crew when they drop me off. Most of the characters are based on friends, family and people I know–but I must admit that sometimes it’s kind of difficult to not be influenced by the wonderful job the actors are doing.
KRL: Now that you’ve been immersed in the world of television making, will you be adding that experience to any future Walt Longmire story?
Craig: You know, you’re the first one to ask me that, and I have to tell you that it would be interesting to have a movie or television crew come to Absaroka County and film… maybe a story based on Walt? I’d just have to find the right story.
KRL: Writers who have their characters in relationships are often faced with the difficulty of how to keep them interesting without losing any of the sexual tension. Can you tell us about any future plans for Vic and Walt and their most unusual relationship?
Craig: When I first got started a lot of mystery writers told me that I had to hold off on consummating anything with the characters for at least fifteen or sixteen books–and my response was, what kind of women are you dating who would wait fifteen or sixteen years for something to happen? So I just blew it out of the water in book three. I figured all it did was create more complications between the characters, and I think a series survives on the ability to complicate the character’s lives and allowing them to develop.
KRL: As a librarian and motorcycle rider, what can you tell me about the Outlaw Motorcycle Tour?
Craig: When I was first starting out I got emails from small independent bookstores in the northwest, wanting to know when Viking/Penguin was going to send me to Baker City, Oregon or Big Timber, Montana and…well, they weren’t. So I put all these bookstores in a file and figured that someday, if I was in the vicinity, I’d get to them. Well, I had this old motorcycle I’d bought back in ’96 and it was dry-rotting on its tires, so I thought maybe I’d take it and do a five-thousand mile loop through the northwest. The Outlaw Motorcycle Tour, as my wife likes to call it, is about thirty bookstores and three weeks long, now.
KRL: How has the response from the Indian community been to your books and now the television show? Do you feel more responsibility as a representative of their voice? Do your friends see themselves in your books?
Craig: The response on the Crow and Cheyenne Reservations has been overwhelmingly positive, but you have to remember that these people are my friends and neighbors. I spend a lot of time on the Rez visiting high schools and such, but I think the thing they respond to the most is that to me the Indian characters are people first with the same passions, desires and fears as everyone else.
Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Henry Standing Bear on the A&E’s Longmire came up and spent a week with the Northern Cheyenne and they adopted him into the tribe; that’s about the highest compliment they can pay, so I guess they like the TV series, too.
I’m not sure if I see myself as representative of their voice, but I’m a conduit in portraying them as complex, vibrant people and not simply serotypes or clichés. There are only five thousand enrolled members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and I borrow freely from my friends as characters in the books. It’s almost become a source of pride to be portrayed in the books, and to me that’s deeply satisfying.
KRL: Who are some of your favorite writers?
Craig: I like the big picture guys, the ones who weren’t afraid to take on the social and cultural issues of their times–Steinbeck, Hugo, Dickens, Tolstoy.
KRL: Are you constantly on the lookout for events and news to incorporate into your books? What inspires you to write?
Craig: Newspapers are my lifeblood; generally I stumble onto a social issue or problem and I use that as a jumping off point. Injustice, or something that’s just not right tends to set my teeth on edge, and I’ve found that to be marvelous fuel for writing. I tend to refer to it as the burr-under-the-saddle-blanket-school-of-literature.
KRL: So what it is like to have Walt Longmire bumper stickers out now?
Craig: Hey, I’d vote for the guy.
KRL: Your new novel, A Serpent’s Tooth, includes extensive information about the Mormon religion. How much did you know about Mormons before writing this novel? And what did you find most interesting?
Craig: A lot of what the book deals with are the splinter groups of the Mormon Church or LDS, fundamentalist polygamy groups that the Mormon Church has pretty much divested itself of. These folks are to Mormons what the Westborough Baptists are to most Christians. We have Mormons in Wyoming and Montana, so they’re not unknown to me, but the more I read about these splinter groups, the more appalled I became. The main issues in A Serpent’s Tooth deal with the ‘lost-boys’ or male teenagers who are kicked out of these groups for trumped up reasons, but mostly so that the older men can have multiple young wives–Warren Jeffes kind of stuff. I was curious how Walt would react if one of these ‘lost-boys’ were to show up in Absaroka County.
KRL: Humor is such a strong element in all of your books. Do you ever find it difficult to balance the humor with the tragedy and seriousness of events in your novels?
Craig: Not at all. Anybody who’s ever had a tough job like law enforcement knows that you either laugh or you cry to get through the day–and most of the time you do both.
KRL: Is there anything your fans would be surprised to learn about you?
Craig: I’ve got a ’69 Mustang convertible in my shop that I’m restoring–I can’t ride that motorcycle forever.
To enter to win a copy of A Serpent’s Tooth & Death Without Company, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, with the subject line “Longmire”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 8, 2013. U.S. residents only.
Use this link to order A Serpent’s Tooth from Mysterious Galaxy:
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.