Category Archives: Craig Johnson

Distant Cousins From Down the Line*

When you think of the word ‘family,’ you likely think of your partner, your children, perhaps your parents and siblings. You might also think of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. But not everyone thinks that way.

In many cultures, ‘family’ has a different meaning. Anyone who’s related by blood (distant cousins, for instance) is a member of the family. And that bond can be extremely important. One’s clan membership, if I may use that term, is a critical part of one’s identity, and one owes loyalty to that group. That social structure certainly matters in real life, and it matters in crime fiction, too. There are lots of examples in the genre; here are just a few.

Most of Tony Hillerman’s novels feature Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. Both men are members of the Navajo Nation. Both are also members of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). In the Navajo culture, kinship is very important, and goes far beyond parents and their children. That concept of family is woven throughout the series. In more than one novel, for instance, Chee introduces himself to people using the Navajo tradition of identifying both his mother’s clan and his father’s clan. And in more than one novel, kinship ties feature in the cases that Chee and Leaphorn investigate. Members of the same extended family protect each other and help each other, and both Chee and Leaphorn know this.

Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Longmire’s jurisdiction is within striking distance of the Northern Reservation, which is home to the Cheyenne Nation, among other Native Americans. One of the members of that nation is Longmire’s good friend, Henry Standing Bear. He owns a bar/restaurant/local watering hole called The Red Pony, and he knows just about everyone in the area. He also has a strong and far-reaching group of kinship ties to many people on the Northern Reservation (and in other places, too). That network of family ties makes him a sort of community ‘hub.’

We see a similar concept of kinship ties in Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series. Active is an Alaska State Trooper. He is also a member of the Inupiaq people, although he was adopted by a white couple, and raised in Anchorage. In White Sky, Black Ice, Active is assigned to Chukchi, where his biological mother, Martha, happens to live. He soon learns how important kinship ties are among his people. In fact, one of the cases he investigates is the disappearance of Aaron Stone, who is a distant kinsman of Martha Active. Stone went on a hunting trip and hasn’t come back within a reasonable amount of time. Martha asks her son to look into the matter, and he agrees. Soon enough, Active finds the missing man’s body not far from one of his hunting campsites. On the surface, it seems that he committed suicide. But Active isn’t sure that’s true, and he looks into the case a little more deeply. In the end, he finds that Aaron Stone was murdered, and that his death ties in with another case Active is investigating.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI, based in Bangkok. In The Half-Child, she meets Rajiv Patel, who works in his uncle’s bookshop. Patel is from India, but he wants to have a chance to see more of the world. His family would have preferred him to stay nearby and settle down with a local wife. But that’s not his goal. As a way to avoid out-and-out conflict, Patel and his family reached a sort of compromise. The family agreed that Patel would spend some time in Bangkok. Patel agreed that he would live with his uncle and his family and help in the bookshop. It was assumed he’d be welcome in his uncle’s home as long as he stayed. It was also assumed he’d contribute to the family through his work at the shop. Everything changes, though, when Patel meets Keeney. Before long, the two begin dating, and they become partners in life as well as business partners. It’s very interesting to see the difference between the way Patel views family and the way that Keeney does.

One focus of Nicole Watson’s The Boundary is a legal battle between the Corrowa people and a development company. The Corrowa have filed a land title claim to Brisbane’s Meston Park. The development company wants the land for its own projects. Justice Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa and is murdered just a few hours later. Then, there are other deaths, each of a person opposing the land claim. The murders are investigated by police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins, and they’re going to have a difficult time. The Corrowa people have strong kinship ties to each other and aren’t likely to help the police.

And then there’s Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. In that novel, we are introduced to thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell (yes, same name as the author), who’s at a crossroads in his life. His marriage is over, and a car crash has left him without the use of his legs. As a way of starting over, he buys a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. He soon gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to the cottage’s former occupants, the Cotter family. In 1989, Alice Cotter disappeared and was never found. A year later, her father, James also disappeared. As Bell works to find some answers, he slowly gets to know some of the other people who live in the area. Several of them have kinship ties (cousins, second cousins, and so on), and over time, Bell gets to see how important these ties are.

And they really are. In many cultures, kinship goes far beyond parents and children. And it’s very interesting to see how those ties impact people’s lives and their motives.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Border Song.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Craig Johnson, Nicole Watson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

You’re Not the Only One With Mixed Emotions*

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot works with Chef Inspector Jap to solve three murders that turn out to be related. At one point, he says this to one of the characters:
 

‘‘…I am sorry…for the things which I shall have to do so soon.’’
 

Here, Poirot is referring to the fact that he’s going to be responsible for the arrest of the murderer, a person whom he would much prefer not to see in prison. He does what he feels he has to do (identify the killer), but he’s quite conflicted about it. And Christie fans know that this isn’t the only case where Poirot has mixed feelings about letting the law take its course.

There are other novels, too, where the sleuth is conflicted about naming the murderer. On the one hand, murder is a serious crime. On the other, it’s not always quite so simple as, ‘You killed someone. Therefore, you must go to prison.’ And sometimes, fictional sleuths feel the complexity of a case. Little wonder, then, that they have mixed emotions about certain cases.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes is called in when the body of Enoch Drebber is discovered. Drebber was a visitor to London, originally from the US, so he doesn’t have a circle of friends and family in London who might benefit from his death. There are some strange elements to this case, and police detective Tobias Gregson wants Holmes’ input. At first, there’s a question of whether Drebber’s secretary, Joseph Stangerson, might be the murderer. But then, Stangerson himself is murdered. Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate to find out who might have wanted to kill both men. The answer lies in the men’s past, and on the one hand, Holmes has the intellectual satisfaction that comes from knowing the truth about the case. On the other hand, though, he has sympathy for the killer. As Conan Doyle fans can tell you, this isn’t the only case in which Holmes is torn between the interests of the law, and the particular situation of the murderer and/or victim. He may be dedicated to the logical and the scientific, but that doesn’t mean he’s oblivious to the humans with whom he interacts.

Neither is Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire. He’s the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, and based in the small town of Durant. He knows most of the people in the area, and they know him, too. For Longmire, justice isn’t a simple concept. We see that in The Cold Dish, when he and his team investigate the murder of Cody Pritchard. There’s not a lot of evidence, but Longmire begins the work. Then, Jacob Esper is found dead. Now, Longmire starts to suspect that these two young men were killed because of their involvement in a gang-rape two years earlier. He begins to wonder whether members of the victim’s family might have decided to exact revenge (for which he, personally, wouldn’t blame them). As the investigation continues, Longmire gets closer and closer to the truth. And when he finds out who the killer really is, he’s very conflicted about it. It’s a difficult situation for him, and Johnson doesn’t gloss over that.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel introduces readers to Melbourne-based police detective Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned to Melbourne from service in World War II. He’s seconded to Wodonga to help solve a series of thefts committed by a motorcycle gang. The latest theft, which took place at a railroad station, involved injury to the paymaster, so there’s a great deal of pressure to get the case solved. Then, the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, it looks as though the motorcycle gang committed the murder. But Berlin soon learns that that group had nothing to do with the killing. Now, he has to deal with two separate cases. When he gets to the truth about them, Berlin finds himself very conflicted. I don’t want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but the Berlin really is torn by what he finds.

So is RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, whom we meet in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect. As that novel begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. He leaves the scene of the crime, then returns to his home. Later, he goes back to Burke’s house and calls the police to report the murder. Alberg begins the investigation by trying to trace the victim’s last day. At first, there’s talk that an itinerant fish salesman who visits the various homes in the area might be responsible. But that doesn’t seem likely. The only other viable suspect – and the one who interests Alberg – is Wilcox. But there doesn’t seem to be any motive. Alberg learns that the two men have known each other for a long time. They didn’t like each other, but that’s not a motive for a murder. Little by little, Alberg gets to the truth. And when he does, he’s very conflicted about what to do.

And that’s the thing. Sleuths are human. They know that situations are often not ‘black and white’ when it comes to who kills, and why someone might take a life. And yet, they also know that murder laws are there for a reason. That means that they are sometimes conflicted about a case. And that tension can add a great deal to a character and to a plot.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rolling Stones’ Mixed Emotions.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Geoffrey McGeachin, L.R. Wright

Stranded on an Island Alone*

As this is posted, it’s 299 years since the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Among other things, this novel explores the relationship between humans and nature as Crusoe works to find shelter, food, and so on after he is stranded. It’s also, of course, his personal reflection.

And being stranded can be very scary, even if you have some survival skills. After all, lots of different things can happen, and plenty of them are not good. That’s part of why that plot point can add a lot to a crime story. There’s an extra layer of tension that can be very powerful. And the physical setting can add interest to the story, too. There are lots of novels that include that element of being stranded, or close to it. Here are just a few; I know you’ll think of others.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story of ten people who accept invitations to visit Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They all arrive and settle in, and at first, all seems well enough. Then, that night, each person is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Then, one of the guests dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, there’s another death. Soon, a storm comes up that cuts off access to the island, so these people are stranded. And, now that it’s clear that one of them is a killer, no-one feels safe trusting anyone else. These characters don’t really have to make shelter or forage outside for food. But they are trapped, and they don’t trust each other enough to work well together. Against that backdrop, the survivors are going to have to find out who the killer is if they’re going to stay alive.

Dick Francis’ Second Wind features BBC meteorologist Perry Stuart. In one plot thread, he crashes in the Caribbean after flying a plane through the eye of a hurricane. He thinks he’s about to drown, but instead, washes up on an uninhabited island. He manages to survive, and uses the resources he can find for shelter, food, and so on. Then, he is found by four visitors to the island. At first, it seems that they want to kill him for intruding. Instead, they return him to Grand Cayman. He’s blindfolded, so he doesn’t know where the island he discovered is. But apparently, someone thinks he knows too much for safety. Once he returns to England, Stuart becomes the target of some dangerous people whose plot he slowly uncovers.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is the story of London-born William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. In 1806, Thornhill is sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of wood. He and his family arrive in Sydney and have to start all over. On the one hand, they are not stranded in the sense of there being no-one else there. On the other, they have to make do as best they can for a lot of things. Still, they slowly start to build a life. Thornhill finds work with a man named Alexander King, who wants him to transport casks of liquor to nearby coves, where they won’t be seen by customs inspectors. Sal puts together a makeshift pub. It’s all rudimentary, but it’s a start. Then, Thornhill gets a job delivering goods on the Hawkesbury River. That’s where he discovers the perfect piece of land that he’s been wanting. But, of course, there have been people in this area for many thousands of years. So, there are bound to be clashes between them and the newcomers. And soon enough, that’s exactly what happens. Thornhill wants no part of the bloodshed and crimes that ensue. He soon learns, though, that if he wants to hold on to his land, he’ll have to get his hands dirty. As the Thornhills get settled on their land, we see how they have to learn to use creatively the things they find there.

Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series will know that, in more than one novel, Longmire ends up more or less stranded in the mountains. He’s the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, and that means his jurisdiction includes some very rough terrain. He knows the land, and he knows how to make do. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for him to stay warm, find food, and take shelter. It’s a good reminder not to take the elements for granted.

And that’s a lesson that Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte knows very well. He’s a Queensland Police Inspector, who is also half white/half Aborigine. He is thoroughly familiar with, as he calls it, the Book of the Bush. And that helps him to survive when he’s out in the ‘back of beyond.’ He knows what’s safe to eat and what isn’t, what sorts of places will offer safe shelter, how to find potable water, and how to spot an oncoming storm.

All of those skills are useful, especially if one ends up as Robinson Crusoe did. That plot line – where characters who are isolated have to make what they can from what’s available – can add suspense to a novel. And it’s interesting to explore the dynamic between people and their surroundings in those situations. Which examples have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Junior Senior.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Daniel Defoe, Dick Francis, Kate Grenville

At the Gate Are All the Horses Waiting For the Cue to Fly Away*

Have you ever ridden horses? Even if your family never owned a horse, you might have taken riding lessons. Horses have a long history with people, for farm work, for racing, and as forms of transportation. And that’s to say nothing of the way they’ve been bred for showing.

The horse business is a very lucrative one, and it’s got its own culture and language. Because it’s a small world, so to speak, and because of the money involved, the world of horses is an interesting context for a crime story. There are a lot of them out there; here are just a few.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson travel to Dartmoor to investigate the disappearance of a famous racehorse, Silver Blaze. The horse has been abducted, and his trainer, John Straker, has been murdered. Some of the evidence points to a London bookmaker, Fitzroy Simpson. In fact, Inspector Tobias Gregson has already arrested him for murder. But, for all of his faults, Gregson doesn’t want an innocent man to be convicted. So, he asks Holmes to investigate. Of course, Holmes and Watson want to know who Straker’s killer is, too. But there’s also the intriguing question of what happened to Silver Blaze. It’s not easy to hide a horse. But Holmes works out where Silver Blaze is.

In Ellery Queen’s short story, Long Shot, Queen is under contract to Hollywood’s Magna Studios. They’ve tapped him to do a crime film that takes place in the horse racing world, but he knows nothing about horses, or racing. His love interest, gossip columnist Paula Paris, takes him to meet with well-known breeder John Scott. Queen gets some useful information, but he also gets drawn into a difficult mystery. It seems that Scott is being threatened by a man who wants to buy up his whole stable. If Scott doesn’t acquiesce, his best horse, Danger, is at real risk. And, on the day of an important race at Santa Anita, tragedy strikes. Danger is badly wounded, and Scott’s daughter, Kathryn, is abducted. But, as Queen discovers, this isn’t as straightforward a mystery as it seems…

Fans of Dick Francis’ work will know that many of them feature the horse breeding and racing world. For example, one of his series features former jockey Sid Halley. His racing career has ended in injury, and Halley now works as a racetrack investigator. And there are all sorts of nefarious things that can go on in that world, There’s a lot of money in racing, so there’s quite a lot at stake. And that means that some people will do whatever it takes to sabotage competition and ensure their horses will win. Of course, there are watchdog groups to make sure that races are run fairly. But, as Halley learns throughout the novels, there are plenty of insidious ways to ‘work the system.’

Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series will know that Irish is a Melbourne-based sometimes-lawyer, who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. One of his interests is horse racing, and he and a group of his friends have a sort of betting ‘syndicate.’ In Dead Point, for instance, one of the plot threads follows the syndicate as their horse, Renoir, can’t finish an important race, and has to be put down. Then, one of the group members is mugged, and the group’s winnings from another race are stolen. Now, Irish has very personal reasons for finding out who’s behind it all.

If you’ve ever been to the US state of Virginia, you know that horses and horse breeding are integral to the culture. There are some horse bloodlines that go back many generations, and races, shows, sales, and even fox hunts, are important social events. Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series takes place against this backdrop. As the series begins, she is the postmistress for tiny Crozet, Virginia. Later she steps away from that position and does other things, such as winemaking and concentrating on her farm. Throughout the series, readers get a strong sense of the local culture, and that includes horses. In more than one novel, Harry investigates mysteries that have to do with horse breeding, racing, and so on. Fans can tell you, too, that her ex-husband, Pharamond ‘Fair’ Haristeen (who later returns to her life), is a much-in-demand veterinarian whose specialty is horses.

Horses also play important roles on ranches. Good horses are an essential to a successful operation. We see that in work like Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte series. He is a police investigator for the Queensland Police. His work takes him to some far-flung places, and to more than one ranch. In works such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, we see how a ranch relies on its horses. We see that in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series, too, as well as several others.

As you can see (but you knew this), horses and people have a long and varied sort of relationship. Whether it’s racing, farm work, transportation, or something else, horses have been integrated into our lives for millennia. So, it’s really little wonder at all that we also see them in crime fiction. Here are just a few examples. Your turn.

 

ps. Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of my daughter taking her first pony ride.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Ascot Gavotte.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Dick Francis, Ellery Queen, Peter Temple, Rita Mae Brown

You Don’t Have to Go to a Private School Not to Pick Up a Penny Near a Stubborn Mule*

There are several different kinds of knowing and understanding. Some of that knowledge, of course, comes from what we learn formally. That’s why people with a lot of education are often thought of as especially ‘smart.’

The fact is, though, that there’s plenty of wisdom that has little to do with schooling.  It’s not that people with such ‘down home’ wisdom disparage formal education; rather, their knowledge comes observation, experience, and the reflection. That ‘down home’ sort of wisdom can be extremely valuable. And in crime fiction, it can make for a very interesting sort of character.

For instance, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s sleuth is Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. Known sometimes as the ‘codfish Sherlock,’ Mayo is a former sailor who’s settled in Cape Cod. He’s a general assistant at Porter Motors, and there’s not much he’s not able to fix. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but he’s got quite a lot of his own kind of wisdom. He knows the area very, very well, and he knows the people, too. He’s shrewd and quick-thinking, and he has a lot of what people call common sense. He may not speak with an educated accent, but people underestimate him at their peril.

They do Gil North’s Caleb Cluff, too. Cluff is a police inspector who lives and works in the fictional town of Gunnershaw, on the Yorkshire moors. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but he does have a lot of ‘down home’ sort of common sense wisdom. He knows the people of the area, their histories, and the way they’re likely to behave. And he knows the moors as well as anyone could. It’s that sort of wisdom that helps him put the pieces together.

Eleanor Kuhns’ Will and Lydia Rees have that same sort of ‘down home’ common-sense wisdom. This historical series takes place at the very end of the 18th Century. Rees is an iterant weaver who’s settled in Maine. In the course of the series, he meets and marries Lydia Farrell, and develops a bit more of a ‘home base.’  But he still does plenty of ‘wandering.’ For instance, in Death in Salem, Rees travels to Salem, to look for a gift for Lydia, who’s expecting a child. He wants to get a few yards of well-made cloth, so she can have something special to wear. As it happens, he sees a funeral procession for Mrs. Antiss Boothe, wife of a very prominent shipping magnate. The next day, Boothe himself is found dead, and it’s clear that he was murdered. Rees’ old friend, Twig, is worried because the woman he loves is very much under suspicion. So, he asks Rees to find out the truth. Rees isn’t educated, but he has his own sort of wisdom, and so does Lydia. Even with a group of wealthy and prominent suspects, he finds out who the murderer is, and what the motive is.

Craig Johnson’s series features Sheriff Walt Longmire, who lives and works in Durant, Wyoming. As sheriff of Absaroka County, he’s learned quite a lot about the local area and the people. And he has a lot of common sense. That ‘down home’ understanding and wisdom help Longmire make sense of his investigations. For example, in The Cold Dish, the body of Cody Pritchard is discovered not far from town. Longmire knows the victim’s history, and has a good sense of the sort of person he was. A few years earlier, Pritchard and three other young men gang-raped Melissa Little Bird, who was sixteen at the time. Longmire doesn’t need a lot of formal education and scientific deduction to guess at the motive for this murder. There are aspects of the case that aren’t clear at first, and the solution isn’t the one that it seems to be on the surface. But throughout the novel, we see how Longmire uses his every wisdom and common sense to solve the case. Fans of this series can tell you that Longmire’s good friend, Henry Standing Bear, has a similar sort of ‘everyday wisdom’ about things.

And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She’s smart, and did well in school, but she doesn’t have a lot of formal education. What she does have, though, is a great deal of wisdom. She learned some of it from her beloved father, Obed Ramotswe. She’s also a natural observer, so she’s learned to watch and make sense of what she sees. It’s interesting, too, to see how Mma Ramotswe’s common sense and ‘folk wisdom’ sometimes contrasts with more ‘book learning’ approach of her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, especially at the beginning of the series. Mma Makutsi is very proud of having graduated the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with a 97% average, and she is good at the clerical skills she was taught. But it takes her a little time to develop a bit of the sort of ‘down home’ wisdom that her boss has.

There are plenty of other characters, too, who have that sort of common-sense, ‘down home’ wisdom that doesn’t come from books or classes (right, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon Bonaparte?). These sleuths may not have university degrees, but they have a great deal of understanding of how the world and the people in it work. And that can be extremely helpful when solving a case. Which common-sense sleuths have stayed with you?

ps. Oh, the photo? Dogs may not have an education, but they have the wisdom to find the sunniest spot for a warm, cuddly afternoon nap when they’re sleepy.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Upfield, Craig Johnson, Eleanor Kuhns, Gil North, Phoebe Atwood Taylor