Resident Murder Room author Deb Valentine explores the American frontier with a selection of Western crime, including Craig Johnson’s latest novel, Dry Bones – brand new to the Murder Room!
‘Go West, young man, go West!’ was the cry of nineteenth-century America. And they did. Men and women. In droves. Soon the stories followed. Zane Grey, a pioneer of Western fiction, published his first book in 1903 and became the first millionaire author. The mystique of the Old West reached fever pitch, inflaming the imagination of many a young writer.
Yet no writer leaps into print fully formed. They hone their craft. They mature. They find their true métier. What we see in Elmore Leonard’s The Complete Westerns anthology is the evolution of the writer we now know as ‘Elmore Leonard!’. Written in the 1950s, and before he developed a sense of humour, these are tough stories of tough men and resourceful women. They get progressively better, richer – you can virtually smell the chaparral in the air – and include classics adapted for film like 3:10 To Yuma. But my personal favourite is The Colonel’s Wife. Believe me, this is just itching for the screen. She’s one helluva woman and a plum role for the right actress. Iconic, for sure.
Outlaws, ranchers, lawmen, with the occasional Mexican or Indian thrown in for local colour (or menace), became the staple diet of Western literature. But Tony Hillerman turned this on its head with his crime fiction featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. From his first book, The Blessing Way, to his last, The Shape Shifters, he demonstrated his passion for the Native Americans he so admired, the Navajo in particular. His plots were ingenious, his stories steeped in cultural detail, beliefs and legends, in reverence for the natural world. Of all the many awards he received he said his most precious was the Special Friend of the Dineh from the Navajo Tribal Council. Now his daughter, Anne, has picked up the banner, continuing the adventures of these engaging tribal officers.
The West is not short of anti-heroes, but for sheer quirkiness Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is up there with the best of the antis. Eli Sisters, as sensitive a soul as you’ll ever find in a sociopath, and his brother Charlie (a more rampant sociopath though even he has his own code of ethics – sort of) are hit men on horseback. We get a bird’s-eye view of their convoluted relationship via Eli and his musings on life. Brutality is no stranger in the West but here, without pulling any punches (or bullets), it’s infused with melancholy humour. I loved this story. I loved these men. I loved the way DeWitt pulled it off. It’s peculiar but strangely . . . kind? Like a plug of tobacco I’ll be chewing this over for some time.
And while we’re on the subject of peculiar . . .
Dinosaurs. Let me repeat: Dinosaurs. Yes! Who doesn’t love a dinosaur? And when paired with Sheriff Walt Longmire, something of an old dinosaur for truth and justice Wyoming-style himself, Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones is another quirky combo. When a near-complete T rex fossil is unearthed in Absaroka County this triggers a hilarious political hoopla as well as death (possibly by turtle) and betrayal. But you don’t read Johnson just for the cleverness of the plots or the mythic quality of the Wild West he so brilliantly evokes. No, it’s the bone-dry humour and lively relationships that keep you coming back for more. There’s a mystical quality too, wrapped up in Indian legends and Longmire’s own visions. Johnson does his research well and gives us just enough info on the Cretaceous beasties without blinding us with science. I felt sorry for Jen the T rex, sorrowful at the method of her demise; it’s one that may just serve as a subtle theme for the whole book – and perhaps for life. Or at least some lives. Dry Bones also leaves you with a lurking menace that has you champing at the bit for the next instalment of this enjoyable series.
But we’ve hit the jackpot this autumn because not only do we have a new Longmire book, but Longmire Season 4 on our TV screens. Having had a recent catch-up, I can report that Season 1 sees Longmire mourning his wife and taking the long road out of the dark forest of grief. Robert Taylor gracefully embodies the rugged lawman while Lou Diamond Phillips’ is a terrific foil in their close, sometimes fractious, friendship. Deputy Vic Moretti is one of my favourite characters and Katee Sackhoff captures her brittle no-nonsense stance; sadly though, this being American TV, we don’t get her healthy Anglo Saxon profanities (but that is a mere quibble – and a disappointment I realise not everyone might share). Bailey Chase as Branch Connally is suitably kickable, though perhaps more sympathetic than I recall from The Cold Dish.
It’s difficult for a small screen to capture the cinematic scope of Johnson’s fine prose when it comes to the Wyoming landscape but they do their best – and it’s peopled with grizzled cowboys wearing Levis over flat saddle-worn bums. Season 1 tends to be episodic in its approach, but Season 3 leads you down a warpath to an eye-bulging finale that has you shouting ‘bring on Season Four!’.
As the Season 1 campaign signs say: ‘Longmire for Sheriff: Honesty and Integrity’.
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website and follow her on Twitter.