Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: THE COLD DISH by Craig Johnson

the cold dish cover

The biggest crimes the town of Durant, Wyoming, usually sees are escaped ranch animals and drunk cowboys. But when a young man convicted in the gang rape of a Cheyenne girl is found in a sheep field, Sheriff Walt Longmire senses his days of phoning it in are over.

The Cold Dish is the first book in the Longmire series. It's not as good as Hell is Empty, but that's a good thing—after seven years and six books, one would hope that an author's work would improve, right? I basically got really impatient reading The Cold Dish because: 1. it's the first book in the series, which means there's a lot of exposition about things I'm already familiar with from watching the TV show; and 2. it took me forever to get through. This is mainly my own fault: I started it when I was busy and lucky to carve out fifteen minutes of uninterrupted reading time. Unfortunately, this isn't the type of book you can just pick up and get into right away, so I struggled through the first half and almost DNF'd it.

The Cold Dish finally starts to get interesting around the 150 page mark, when Walt goes onto the rez with his BFF, Henry Standing Bear, to question the father of the girl who was raped. Yes, it took him that long. The father's not a suspect because he can't walk, and Walt doesn't have any jurisdiction on the Indian reservation, but still. When he visits, the girl's dad gives Walt the legendary Cheyenne Rifle of the Dead, which was used in the Battle of the Little Bighorn and, it's implied, killed General Custer. The rifle is haunted by the Old Cheyenne who sometimes use it to call people to the land of the dead. Intriguing, no? Then things get really exciting because more of the rapists start dying.

So I did like the second half of the novel, but it was a long dang walk up to that point. On the plus side, even with the slow start, The Cold Dish definitely has its redeeming qualities. First of all, despite the dark subject matter, there's a lot of humor in the novel. Craig Johnson is as familiar with the universe of rural Wyoming as Jane Austen was with the gentle society of Regency England, and takes a similar tolerant-yet-ironic tone when describing the characters and foibles that populate his world. Aside from Walt, the secondary characters are awesome: Henry of the non-contractions has a very droll sense of humor, and gets most of the best lines in the book; and there's also Lucien, the former sheriff of Absaroka County and Walt's mentor, who's a crazy kamikaze badass living in a nursing home. Really all the main secondary characters are very well-realized except for Vonnie, but that's another story.

As I read The Cold Dish, I couldn't help but compare it to The Cuckoo's Calling. Unexpectedly, the two novels have a lot in common: they're both debut mystery novels that are reinterpretations of the classic noir set-up, with a down-on-his-luck, depressed, ex-military hero who's practically homeless; tons of literary references; and walking and talking. What is it with the walking and talking?! But The Cold Dish feels like a more original and organic twist, is more fully populated with characters and locations, has a better mystery (although the conclusion still made me roll my eyes), and the literary references are much more clever and integrated into the story. So I would say overall The Cold Dish is the better book.

Even though this book didn't wow me like Hell is Empty did, I'll definitely keep reading the Longmire series because I think Johnson is a great writer and the characters he's created are awesome.

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