Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review: The Cold Dish

The Cold Dish The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I try to avoid “series,” those mysteries that give us characters who, over the course of five or eight or 22 mysteries, develop. There are some good ones – James Lee Burke’s comes to mind as a solid example, perhaps a lot of Lawrence Block’s work too – and a couple very good ones (Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins is my gold standard), but I find I’m not much into the form. For one, the demands of genre tend to take over. The larger premise is that we’re meeting an interesting character (or set of characters); the smaller one is that there’s a mystery afoot and, once this character solves it, this chapter in his or life will end.

For another, the canvas is so implicitly large that authors can get away with sloppiness. Minor characters in the first installment – the desk clerk, the quirky neighbor, the insightful bartender – get brought back in later iterations, the outlines of their early selves filled in with the pretense that we’ve known them all along. They aren’t deeply drawn characters, they’ve just been around a long time. (In a different context The Simpsons has milked that for astonishing longevity. Name a background character who hasn’t had at least one episode dedicated to her or him.)

In effect, the challenge gets ever easier to a writer, and I feel it. There’s a comforting familiarity in seeing the old names and reimagining the faces and voices we’ve assigned them. But I don’t look to crime fiction for comfort. I look for it to be troubled, to find a new way into disturbing aspects of our lives as human animals.

All that out of the way, this is solid work. I wouldn’t have touched it if I hadn’t heard good things about Walt Longmire, and I do enjoy the character. He’s a savvy “older” Western sheriff (the quotes go around older because I think he’s only a few years older than I am), and his grief at his wife’s death seems real. He’s a good man without being two-dimensional. He cares for the people under his protection and under his direction in the sheriff’s department.

The mystery here is solid, too. Someone is killing the boys who were part of a horrific teen rape a few years earlier. Since the victim was a Native-American, lots of Indians come in for suspicion. Johnson isn’t especially insensitive to culture here, but he isn’t doing any memorable work either. We get some interesting references to Cheyenne and Crow practices – and we get a haunting artifact of the Cheyenne resistance – but it seems overdone when Walt has his life saved by ‘ancestral’ visions that come to him in the midst of a blinding snowstorm.

[SPOILER] The ending, where we learn that Walt’s new love interest is actually the killer, is satisfying from the perspective of a whodunit. She does make sense (after the explanation of her own victimhood) and there’s that fun feeling of after-the-fact recognition, the realization that Johnson has skillfully misdirected us from the obvious.

From the larger perspective of Longmire as character, though, it’s disappointing. I’d like to have seen how the old guy would have handled love, how he’d have handled not the pressures of a mystery but rather the quieter challenges of adapting himself to life with a new person. I’d like to see him shed the dubious comforts of his depression for life trying to understand a beautiful but needy woman.

Instead, the demands of the form give us the ultimately less interesting mystery. I’m sure we get to see Walt in new dimensions in later books. I’m sure Johnson continues with his clear skill as a writer and a plotter. And I am sure there are many who enjoy – thoughtfully enjoy – the work.

Still, this just isn’t quite for me. I like my mysteries less assured in their form. I like them discovering not just who did it, but how to tell it. Good luck and a tip of the misshapen hat to Johnson, but I think I’m parting ways after this one.

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