“As the Crow Flies,” by Craig Johnson. Viking, New York. Hardbound, 308 pages. $25.95.
C.J. Box isn’t the only Wyoming mystery writer who has been on a roll.
Craig Johnson, who lives in Ucross, has just published “As the Crow Flies,” the eighth in his series of novels about Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire. “Longmire,” a TV series based on the novels, made its debut this month on the A&E Network. His books get solid reviews in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times Book Review. C.J. Box has even read one of his books.
The appeal isn’t hard to understand. As noted here in previous reviews, the protagonists in these two mystery series have a lot in common: They are both involved in law enforcement; both work in small-town Wyoming; both have Indian sidekicks.
But important differences also exist. Where Mr. Box’s Joe Pickett is dedicated and a bit of a worrier, Walt Longmire, while no less dedicated, has a sense of humor that punctures even the most serious situations. And while Mr. Box sticks to imaginative but solidly constructed plots based on tracking clues and evidence, Sheriff Longmire often wanders far afield.
Occasionally, Mr. Johnson seems to forget that he is writing mysteries at all. In his last novel, “Hell Is Empty,” the sheriff took off on a lonely, single-minded pursuit deep in the mountains, with recurring references to Dante’s “Inferno.” In another, he ventured all the way to Philadelphia. A third had flashbacks to Vietnam.
These side adventures don’t all work equally well. “Hell Is Empty” was terrific, but the Vietnam sojourn was unfocused and the Philadelphia trip just got confusing.
This time, Mr. Johnson is on more familiar turf. On a trip to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, he and his sidekick, Henry Standing Bear, happen to see a woman plummet to her death from a cliff while holding a baby.
The woman dies; the baby survives. But was she pushed? Did she jump? That’s the heart of the mystery, and it spins its way through the impending marriage of the sheriff’s daughter, a peyote trip and a cast of deceptively guilty looking suspects.
This is among the better books in the series. The sheriff’s wit is in full flower (asked how the baby is recovering, he replies, “Still not talking”), and his family complications, plus a little sexual tension, keep the story rolling. Mr. Johnson also has a fine feel for the reservation, a place I once covered for The Billings Gazette.
Like Sheriff Longmire, I found Lame Deer and surroundings lovely and appealing. When I had that beat, I used to say that the worst day I ever spent on the reservation was better than the best day I ever spent in the office.
So how does “As the Crow Flies” stack up to C.J. Box’s latest effort? Let’s call it a draw.