The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
Pages: 380; Published: 2004
Series: Walt Longmire Series (Book 1)
Revenge is a dish best served cold – unknown English proverb
Walt Longmire is the sheriff of Absaroka County. His case: the investigation into the death of a youth that might/might not be a hunting accident. The rub is that the youth in question was convicted two years ago along with three other boys for raping a young Cheyenne girl. This story is much more than a mystery and that made me love reading it all the more. There’s mystery, the small town life/community, friendships, humor and the description of the beautiful landscape and weather.
THE COLD DISH is a very atmospheric novel. The author has a good ear for dialogue and the added humor mostly consisting of witty language and observations about life and people was the biggest surprise of all. The court case involving the four boys is told in piece meal fashion via flashbacks and is interwoven with the current case as to build up suspense and give key insight into or set the context for what set things in motion.
The novel is told from Walt’s pov and is set in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. The landscape is a significant part of the novel, with the constant mention of the snow-covered hilltops, the harsh wind gusts and glaring sunshine with no heat. The author is creative with sights and sounds of the outdoors so that the reader can visually imagine the scene(s) before them. The novel has the feel of romanticism of the old American West.
The town of Durant is small with everything either down the street or right next door. The sheriff and his staff are well entrenched in this tight-knit community. Walt Longmire is the world-weary sheriff and Vietnam vet with stories to share. He drives around in his Silver Bullet. He’s the widow most women in town are after since his wife died. He has a grown daughter who’s a lawyer and lives in New York. . His staff consists of deputy sheriff Victoria Moretti or” Vic” who’s an implant from the city. I liked her a lot with her “fuck you attitude.” She’s his heir-apparent with an expertise in ballistics. Then there’s Ruby, his receptionist/dispatcher with her direct way of speaking. Most people stay out of her way.
As for the mystery, the case has the appearance of one thing but gradually morphs into something else entirely. Walt’s handling of a previous case kind of makes things complex as the Indian community didn’t think he did a good enough job in handling the rape case from two years ago. There’s a bit of friction between Walt and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, when it comes to suspecting the Indian community of being involved in his investigation. The two men have a long history together, both being war vets. Their friendship is at the center of this story. The pair up is similar in style to authors like Tony Hillerman (author I haven’t read but other readers point to him) and Steve Hamilton (this one I have). I’m sure there are more but I’ve not read them.
I’ve read complaints about the pacing and it does move at a leisurely clip. I admit I was worried and was about to set the book aside when a scene that introduced Walt’s best friend, Henry Standing Bear, was overly long. Henry and Walt are conversing as Henry is tearing the walls out looking for the fuse box at his bar at The Red Pony. However, when the hunting accident started to turn up interesting results from evidence and ballistics that’s when I really started to get deeply involved and knew I was going to finish this novel. The second novel in so many days of starting and stopping so many. Plus it seemed like the author had gotten a second wind at this point and it simply took off from there. Things that I loved: the sense of community of the town and that of the Indian community and the friendship between Walt and Henry.
THE COLD DISH is a well thought out novel and was gripping to the end. Craig Johnson’s books have now been made into a TV show on A&E, simply titled, Walt Longmire. I think the covers of his books are arresting to look at. If there is anything to criticize it would be the overly long scenes of introspection. The in-depth detail of weapons, down to the caliber, intricate details on design of the gun went right on by me because I am not a gun enthusiast. I did enjoy the history of the rifle though. I did love how the author embedded folklore of Indian medicine, history and heritage with some liberal supernatural elements; there’s a gun that Walt confiscates for evidence that is said to be haunted by the spirits of the Old Cheyenne; and the simplest evidence of all is a fake Indian feather left at each crime scene.
Favorite scenes? There are a few but I’ll just quote a few scenes that show a hint of the humor in here. In this one, Walt is reading the newspaper and describing the writing of the lone employee and chief editor of the Durant Courant, and one time English major:
I took a sip of my coffee, sat the folder on the counter, and began reading the newspaper. “In the cold, gray dawn of September the twenty-eighth…” Dickens. “The slippery bank where the life of Cody Pritchard came to an ignominious end…” Faulkner. “Questioning society with the simple query, why?” Steinbeck. “Dead” Hemingway. (page 79)
Here Walt is questioning a witness:
I tapped the Breathalyzer, but it remained at 4.2. “Rapidly approaching alcoholic coma.” He toasted with his martini glass and added to the percentage of complex sugars already racing through his bloodstream. “Al, how come I don’t know you?”
He shrugged again; it seemed to be his favorite form of communication. “I don’t know. Hell, how come I don’t know you?
I looked down at my civilian clothes, my sheepskin coat and the brim of my unadorned silver-belly hat. “Al, I’m the sheriff of Absaroka County.”
“Really?” He processed the information for a moment. “Where’s that?”
“You’re in it.” (page 173)
and this last one is one of many typical exchanges between Walt and his dispatcher, Ruby (loved her):
“Anything you need from me?
“Like where you are?”
“Yep, like that.”
“No, we don’t care.”
I thought I heard someone laughing in the background but I wasn’t sure. (page 90)
The denouement was heartbreaking and will leave a lasting impression on Walt. The events toward the end were a surprise to this reader. For the most part I was shocked and quite saddened at the outcome. I thought about the events and how they connected and came full circle and thought how probable would this be in real life. Not very. The author did a good job at diverting my attention. The red herrings were decent enough but a bit heavy handed and going in one direction for most of the story. At one point, I wasn’t even buying it. I just knew the culprit was someone I didn’t know. Boy, was I wrong. So very, very wrong. The ending surprised me.
How would I describe this novel? From the way the author structured the story, I’d say this is a typical police procedural except it’s set out on the high plains. The violence is graphic but no more than what you would see at a crime scene. No autopsy scenes in here though. As readers you don’t know ahead of everybody else who the culprit is or what is going on due to the limitations of first person narrative. I liked Walt as the narrator. He’s interesting and not overly complicated or tortured even though he has some sadness inside of him due to the passing of his wife and 30 years worth of reflections on life in general. He’s charismatic, caring and self-deprecating and hard working. Walt has an excellent supporting cast in here mostly made up of strong women, some more memorable than others. Overall, this was a solidly written novel and I look forward to reading more. B+.
Source: I bought this book. Also here is the write-up from the New York Times about the A&E TV series based on the books
Reading order for the series:
THE COLD DISH (2004)
DEATH WITHOUT COMPANY (2006)
KINDNESS GOES UNPUNISHED (2007)
ANOTHER MAN’S MOCCASINS (2008)
THE DARK HORSE (2009)
JUNKYARD DOGS (2010)
HELL IS EMPTY (2011)
AS THE CROW FLIES (2012)