Friday, June 28, 2013

Review of HELL IS EMPTY by Craig Johnson

cover of hell is empty

"Hell is empty, and the devils are here." -William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire is on a routine prisoner exchange with the FBI when things go from boring to FUBAR: all the prisoners escape, taking one FBI agent as a hostage and shooting everyone else. To make matters worse, the escape occurs just as the worst blizzard in decades hits the Bighorn Mountains. For some reason the convicts, led by schizophrenic sociopath Raynaud Shade, head higher into the mountains, and Walt is the only person who can go after them, accompanied by a copy of Dante's Inferno and an Indian named Virgil White Buffalo.

Hell is Empty is crazy, you guys. CRAZY. It's so mind-bendy that there were times when I put the book down and I found myself wanting to ask someone, "Is this Real Life?" And I sure as heck didn't know what was "real" or not in the book.

I began Hell is Empty with the expectation that it would be a police procedural--a type of book I don't find terribly interesting, but my mom loaned it to me and I was in one of those moods where I was like, "WHAT THE HELL, I'll just DNF it and move on with my life." (Don't you just love going into a book with high expectations?) After about fifty pages, it quickly became apparent that 1. this book was way more literary than I ever expected, and 2. weird things were in store for Walt Longmire.

Hell is Empty is based on Dante's Inferno. This is not immediately apparent. Saizarbitoria, one of Walt's deputies, is trying to round-out his spotty education by reading books recommended to him by people in the sheriff's department (list at the back of the book). The most well-read of the bunch, dispatcher Ruby, recommends Inferno, and Saizarbitoria brings it along with him to kill hours during the prisoner transport. Somehow, the copy gets transferred to Walt on his journey into the Underworld Bighorn Mountains and Inferno is increasingly quoted as the book goes on.

Yet the journey Walt goes on feels completely organic to the plot, even though the challenges he faces become increasingly incredible. Walt's path on the trail of Shade takes him across examples of greed, lust, fraud, anger, and the other deadly sins. But that's all in a day's work for a sheriff, so I didn't notice or even start thinking about parallels to the Inferno until Virgil showed up. And that's when Craig Johnson really starts messing with your head.

I don't want to make it sound like you have to be familiar with the Inferno to enjoy Hell is Empty--you definitely don't. The story is great all on its own, with incredible, memorable scenes balanced out by Walt's wry sense humor. I'm a total sucker for journey stories as long as they don't go back to the island (like in Pirates of the Caribbean), and I'm happy to report Walt does not do that. Instead, from the moment Walt realizes something's gone wrong with the prisoner exchange, the book is a mano-y-mano match against Raynaud Shade, a more-than-worthy foe.

I also really enjoyed Johnson's writing style. He's not one to spell things out for the reader; you have to exercise a little bit of patience to figure out what's going on sometimes, and that works VERY effectively with the story.

I'd recommend Hell is Empty to just about anyone, from people who enjoy genre fiction like westerns and mysteries to literary fiction fans. I even cried at the end, you guys. This is good stuff.

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