Review: “The Cold Dish” by Craig Johnson, and A&E’s “Longmire”

Today I’m feelin’ generous, so it’s a two-fer. Two reviews in one post. Lucky you! I recently read Craig Johnson’s debut mystery novel “The Cold Dish“, which introduced his character Walter Longmire to readers everywhere. After finishing the book, I powered through the first season of A&E’s original series “Longmire“, which is based on the characters in the Johnson novels.

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Let’s start with the book. “The Cold Dish” introduces us to Sheriff Walt Longmire, Sheriff of Absaroka County in Wymoing. He’s an aging sheriff, looking forward to a retirement that doesn’t appear too far off. He’s a widower, having lost his wife to cancer about four years back, and has, in many ways, lost his zest for life. Longmire is not the first hero of hard-boiled mysteries to be introduced to the reading public as a cynical, drinking, down-on-life-and-maybe-himself character. Nor will he, doubtlessly, be the last. But he has a voice all his own, part of which comes from the proximity to the sweeping landscapes of the American West. Longmire is a man who knows himself, knows his limits, and is cautious about pushing them.

But push them he does when the situation calls for it. And in “Cold Dish” the situation calls for it quickly. Walt is called to the scene of a crime where the body of a young man is found, shot through the back. The complication here that Walt must deal with is the fact that this deceased young man is one of four that were acquitted of raping a Native American girl with fetal alcohol syndrome a couple years back. It’s a perfect, though perhaps cliched set-up for Walt Longmire to show us what he’s got. Joining him on this venture is a cast of characters that are fairly well-drawn, even if one or two of them ar characitures. There is the female deputy Victoria “Vic” Moretti, a tough-as-nails, unwilling transplant cop from Philly; there is Henry Standing Bear, Walt’s long-time friend and connection to the Native American community on and off the reservation; there is Ruby, the dispatcher and Sheriff’s Office manager who keeps the office moving along while giving Walt stern matronly glares whenever appropriate.

I found “The Cold Dish” a fun read that kept me reading, which is saying a lot these days. At approximately 400 pages, it’s too long, and suffers from a certain laziness in the editing process. I’m used to the sharp crisp sentences of Robert B Parker, and if you’re looking for those here, you’ll be disappointed. There is also a section that starts off as spiritual and quickly borders on supernatural as Walt fights his way up a mountain through a blizzard. It reminded me of the Halloween episode of [insert cop show name here] where the good guys are plagues at every turn by events that seem other-worldly to them, but turn out to be completely plausiable.

But not to leave you thinking I didn’t like the book, because I did. The scenery is well-described so you get a strong sense of the Wyoming countryside. In addition, Johnson, a resident of Ucross, Wyoming, (pop. 25)  gives us insight into the relations between Native Americans (who are called and call themselves “Indians”) and the white population living outside of the “Rez”. These are insights that, coming from a different writer, would feel forced, but never once do they feel so with Johnson at the wheel.

I’m definitely looking forward to the next in the Walt Longmire series. So much so that I decided I had to check out the TV series “Longmire”.

And how is “Longmire”? So glad you asked.

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As a cop show, it’s average. The plots are standard murder plots, with the usual number of twists and somersaults built in in order to keep you guessing until the end. One of these days, somebody is going to come up with a cop show where you know whodunit, and you (and the detectives) spend the rest of the episode trying to get enough evidence to convict. That’s not this show. There is also, not unlike a lot of shows these days, and over-arching plot that slowly threads its way through each episode and ties itself together in the season finale. The season ends on a sort-of cliffhanger. There’s clearly a lot more story to develop with the characters, but you’re not left wondering who shot JR.

But this is no different than any other cop show these days, which leaves the question, why watch it? The answer: Robert Taylor. Taylor is an Aussie actor who American audiences will only recognize as Agent Jones from “The Matrix”.

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This role couldn’t be farther from that, and Taylor makes the character of Walt his own. His widowership is only a year (whereas in teh books it’s four years) which makes the pain much closer. He’s aided by Katee Sackhoff in the role of Vic, and she too makes the role her own. Described in the books as a handsome not pretty, square-jawed woman, Sackhoff’s features seem cut to order for the role. Add to that her ability to play hard-nosed, characters (see “Battlestar Galactica” for reference) and she is perfect in the role. Rounding out the cast is Lou Diamond Phillips in the role of Henry Standing Bear. Phillips is not the first person who comes to mind when you think of a bar-owning native American friend of Walt, especially since they are approximately the same age. The first person I thought of for the role was Wes Studi, an excellent Native American actor (see “Last of the Mohicans” for some amazing work). But Phillips, like Taylor and Sackhoff inhabits the role and you never once question whether he belongs there.

I really enjoyed the first season of “Longmire”, for as run-of-the-mill as the murder plots are, the characters are fun to watch and the scenery, well, it can’t be beat.

So there you have it. “The Cold Dish” by Craig Johnson, and “Longmire” the show inspired by Johnson’s characters. I’d recommend both.

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2 thoughts on “Review: “The Cold Dish” by Craig Johnson, and A&E’s “Longmire”

  1. I watched an episode of the tv series at my mom’s house over Thanksgiving and liked it enough to comment on it. Maybe I commented a time or two, or three, because mom gave me the first four books for Christmas. I totally agree about his out of body experiences, but I am enjoying these books. I’m on the last one now and think I’ll have to fork over the price for the next four. I’d like to see more of the tv series though. Did you find them online somewhere, or buy them?

    1. Scott

      So far I’ve just gone through the first season of the show. It’s available streaming on Netflix. I haven’t checked out A&E online yet to see if the season two is available, but I hope to get to it in a few weeks. Also hoping to dig into book two in March or April, but I have a couple of books in front Johnson in the queue.

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