Among mystery writers, there’s a new sheriff in town

Author Craig Johnson
Author Craig Johnson Photo by Catherine Henriette

Fans of detective fiction wage eternal debates when it comes to turning their literary heroes into film or television characters. Did Robert Urich pull off Robert B. Parker's Spenser? Was Humphrey Bogart the embodiment of Raymond Chandler's iconic Philip Marlowe?

Novelist Craig Johnson has a bit of a counterintuitive situation. His mystery series starring Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire has - over the course of eight books, including the just-released "As the Crow Flies" - gradually reached consistent bestselling status.

At the same time, an A&E television series called "Longmire," based on the novels, debuted in June and has caused such an immediate and positive reaction that a lot of viewers became devout fans before reading any of the books.

As such, when followers of the show - which airs locally at 10 p.m. Sunday - actually do crack open one of Johnson's novels, there is the tendency to compare and contrast whether the original characters match up to impressions gleaned from the television version.

"I am definitely hearing from people," Johnson says, laughing, on the phone from his home in Ucross, Wyoming. "Emails arrive every day, and that's okay. They're two different art forms. For me, it's kind of nice because the show gives an honest portrayal of the people and the place."

In the books, which occur in real time, Longmire is a Vietnam vet and a widower whose worldview is decidedly melancholy. He's an embodiment of the old school Western sheriff - very much based, Johnson says, on Roy Rogers or Gene Autry - but even in Wyoming the cruelties and realities of the modern world have had a profound effect on Longmire.

"Walt's a do-the-right-thing guy, and he's a sheriff in the smallest county in the least-populace state in the country," Johnson says. "At the same time, Gene and Roy didn't deal with meth labs. This is a complex world, and I want to convey that. At the same time, there's no way in my business you can overestimate the attraction of the American West. The idea of the Western is just fine, thank you - but when I'm writing about its romance and beauty, you have to include the nasty parts and the reality. Otherwise, you're writing Walt Disney, and I'm not interested in that."

Key support characters in Johnson's books are his deputy, a Philadelphia transplant named Victoria "Vic" Moretti, Walt's grown up daughter Cady, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear. Representing not just friendship but also the very tangible presence of such Native American tribes as the Cheyenne and the Crow, Henry is a remarkable creation and very much deserving of equal billing.

Hollywood being Hollywood, actors portraying Longmire (Australia's Robert Taylor) and Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips), for example, are younger than the book versions. Too, Taylor is a much trimmer sheriff than Walt is on the printed page, and Phillips' portrayal of Henry comes with a boy's regular-style haircut rather than the more indigenous, shoulder-length Native American style described in the books. And blonde actress Katee Sackhoff's Vic is a non-Italianate casting decision.

But Johnson says it's fun to contemplate how television has nuanced his characters.

"It's been a complete blast writing this series, and now I very much appreciate the cross-pollenization between the show and the books," Johnson says.

Originally, "The Cold Dish," the first Longmire story, was written as a one-off novel.

"The way that book ends should indicate that," Johnson says.

But folks at his publishing company read the initial 600-page manuscript and asked him to consider a series.

"They told me the characters, the place and the relationships were all worth exploring. And here I was, without even a book published, and I started arguing with them!" he says.

Johnson went back to his ranch and thought about the proposal - along with the fact that his editor wanted him to cut at least one-third of the manuscript.

"You cut that much, and you lose a lot of action and expository and characters, and it gave me plenty of room to move ahead with more books," he says.

One extremely significant result of the popularity of "Longmire" caught Johnson completely by surprise. As loyal readers know, Longmire is an enthusiast loyalist devoted to Rainier beer, a cheap lager with a small but devoted following in the Pacific Northwest. Johnson himself is a vigorous advocate for the greatness of Rainier. In fact, the only honorarium Johnson will charge to speak at libraries in the state of Wyoming is a six-pack of Rainier - preferably in cans.

It's a more than reasonable honorarium request by the author, but, as he describes, it might not be all that easy to fulfill in the future.

"I did an event recently and, yes, they presented me with the cans of Rainier," Johnson says. "The librarian told me it was hard to find, and I told her I understood because it's not that popular a brand nationally. She said no, that wasn't it. So I suggested that, well, sometimes distributors don't always get Rainier to some of the smaller towns."

Johnson laughs in the middle of his story.

"That wasn't it, either. Because Longmire drinks Rainier on the television show, I guess its new popularity has caused the region to run out of Rainier. I always dreamed of (single-handedly) breaking a brewery, so this is a very high source of pride."

Latest Longmire mystery adds to literary legacy

"As the Crow Flies" is the latest and eighth adventure in Wyoming novelist Craig Johnson's bestselling Walt Longmire mystery series.

At the center of the story is the impending wedding of Longmire's daughter, Cady. Sheriff Longmire and best pal Henry Standing Bear are in charge of the arrangements and, when the venue suddenly falls through, they're forced to look elsewhere in a hurry. While scouting a scenic outdoor location, they see a Cheyenne woman fall to her death from a cliff, clutching an infant in her arms.

Thought at first to be a suicide, the fatal fall turns out to be much more. Longmire's out of his jurisdiction, but a new tribal police chief, Lolo Long - a terrific new character - persuades him to act as her mentor on the case.

As with the entire series, "As the Crow Flies" furthers the blend of flawed but honorable characters, often vicious crime, poetically wrought Big West atmosphere/culture and not a little Indian mysticism (Johnson notes that the Cheyenne and Crow tribes of Wyoming typically prefer "Indian" to "Native American") - and it all means the author is absolutely creating literature out of noir.

- Rick Koster

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