Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The American West has captured people’s imaginations for a very long time. Even though most of us know that life in the West isn’t very similar to the romanticised version of it that we see in some films and television shows there’s still something about it that draws people in. So it’s not surprising that there’ve been some very successful series set in that part of the U.S. To get a sense of what I mean let’s take a closer look at one of them, Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. Let’s turn the spotlight today on the first in that series The Cold Dish.
The story begins with the discovery late one afternoon of a young man’s body on public land not far from Durant, Wyoming. The person who discovered the body is an habitual drunk so at first Sheriff Walt Longmire doesn’t take the call very seriously. In fact he sends his deputy Victoria “Vic” Moretti to the scene, expecting that she’ll find that the “dead body” is a dead sheep. Longmire is wrong. The body belongs to a young man from the area Cody Pritchard. There’s not a lot of evidence to go on at first, so Longmire and his team begin by trying to trace Pritchard’s last days and weeks. Then there’s another murder. Jacob Esper’s body is discovered near the place where he’d planned a fishing trip.
Although there isn’t a lot of evidence, Longmire believes he knows what’s behind these murders. Pritchard and Esper were two of four young men who, a few years earlier, were convicted of gang-raping then-sixteen-year-old Melissa Little Bird. Some of the evidence in the two murders suggests that the killer might be a member of Melissa’s Cheyenne Nation and possibly even a member of her family. If so this is going to be an incredibly difficult case for Longmire, who can’t really blame the killer. Melissa’s attackers got what everyone thinks were unfairly light sentences for what they did despite Longmire’s efforts. Besides, these murders could add real tension to the relations between the Whites and those who live on the Cheyenne Reservation. But it seems clear that someone has decided to take vengeance and Longmire will have to stop that person.
Longmire believes that the other two young men Esper’s twin brother George and Bryan Keller may be in danger. Besides, they may know who’s responsible for the murders. So his next step is to find Esper and Keller and see what they know. Keller is put into protective custody, claiming that he doesn’t anything about the two murders. But George Esper disappears. So now Longmire and his team have to track down George Esper, find out what they can from Bryan Keller and find the killer. In the end, Longmire finds out who the killer is and how these murders are connected to the case of Melissa Little Bird. And no, it’s not the straightforward kind of case you might think.
As the title suggests, one of the main elements running through this novel is the theme of revenge. But Johnson doesn’t treat that theme in the abstract. Rather, we see what the effect of a terrible crime is on its victim, the victim’s family and just about everyone else as we get to know Melissa Little Bird and the members of her family. We also see its effect on the perpetrators as we get to know Bryan Keller and as we learn a little about the Esper twins and Cody Pritchard. What’s interesting is that each of these four young men have been affected differently by what they did.
In some ways this is a police procedural. So we follow along as Longmire and his team interview family members and witnesses and collect evidence. We also get a sense of the long hours and frustration of a serious investigation.
Walt Longmire is haunted by what happened to Melissa Little Bird although he’s not responsible for it, and that sense of personal responsibility is an important part of his character. And Longmire’s character is an essential element in this novel. He’s a widower whose grown daughter Cady is a successful Philadelphia attorney. Although he lives alone, Longmire doesn’t wallow in loneliness or engage in a lot of self-destructive behaviour. And, very refreshingly, he has a loving relationship with Cady, calling her,
“…my singular ray of sunshine.”
Longmire is pragmatic, intelligent and devoted to his job. He takes a personal interest too in the people he works with and it’s clear that to him, the job of sheriff is a lot more than simply a political stepping-stone. That sense of personal responsibility is part of what gets him so frustrated when he and his team can’t find Cody Pritchard’s killer at first and even more so after Jacob Esper’s death.
There are other interesting characters too whose presence are important threads through this novel. Perhaps most prominent is Longmire’s close friend Henry Standing Bear, owner of the Red Pony, which is a bar/restaurant. Henry Standing Bear is a member of the Cheyenne Nation who fought with Longmire in Viet Nam; the two of them have known each other for years and have developed a real loyalty to each other. For instance, at one point in the novel, the two of them are searching for George Esper. They’re out in a relatively inaccessible part of the county when a sudden snowstorm strikes. As they do their best to move along through the storm we can see how each protects the other. Henry Standing Bear, whom Longmire sometimes refers to as The Bear, is in some ways a traditional Cheyenne who lives by his people’s ways. In fact, although Longmire feels free to tease his friend about a lot of things, there are some things that are off limits because of The Bear’s spirituality.
There’s also the character of Vic Moretti. She’s a highly skilled, very independent and tough-talking former Philadelphia cop who moved to Wyoming with her husband and has had her issues fitting in with a culture that’s new to her. She’s not afraid to tell Longmire exactly what she thinks and she gives as good as she gets as the saying goes.
And then there are the less obvious but equally interesting characters such as Ruby, Longmire’s dispatcher and office manager, and Dorothy Caldwell, who owns and runs the Busy Bee restaurant. As all of these characters interact we can see how they’ve all formed bonds with each other and with Longmire. The town of Durant is a small town so everyone knows everyone, and we see clearly how in this case, that “small town” feeling is in many ways a positive one.
There’s also a solid thread of humour running through the novel. Longmire doesn’t take himself too seriously and that adds a welcome light touch to a novel that is sometimes very, very sad. For instance, at one point in the novel, one of the crime scene investigators tells Longmire,
“You blow one homicide, it looks like a mistake. You blow two, it starts looking like negligence. Or worse yet, stupidity.”
“I thought I’d use that on the bumper stickers in the next election, VOTE LONGMIRE, HE’S STUPID.”
Another bit of humour happens while Longmire and Henry Standing Bear are searching for George Esper. The Bear’s been wounded and persuades a very reluctant Longmire to go on ahead, find Esper, and then come back for him. Longmire’s concerned about his friend and wants to know how he’s faring:
“He [Standing Bear] grimaced and shifted his weight.
‘No, I have plenty, thank you.’
I wanted to punch him.”
Despite the humour and occasional self-deprecation, make no mistake. Walt Longmire is determined to solve this case and we see that determination throughout the novel.
The novel takes place in rural Wyoming and that beautiful and sometimes dangerous setting is an essential element of this novel. Here for instance is the view outside Longmire’s office window:
“I’ve got the large office in the south side bay, which allows me an unobstructed view of the Big Horn Mountains to my right and the Powder River Valley to my left. The geese fly down the valley south, with their backs to me…”
Walt Longmire is a product of this setting and all through the novel we see how he fits into it. Quite honestly I couldn’t imagine him happy anywhere else.
The Cold Dish is a story of the after-effects of a terrible crime for everyone. It’s also the story of the network of friendships and other relationships that are woven into the fabric of a small town. It features an interesting and quintessentially American West sheriff and is set in some of the United States’ truly lovely country. But what’s your view? Have you read The Cold Dish? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In the Spotlight
Monday 17 September/Tuesday 18 September – Deadly Tide – Sandy Curtis
Monday 24 September/Tuesday 25 September – Baptism – Max Kinnings
Monday 30 September/Tuesday 1 October – One Coffee With – Margaret Maron