Craig Johson – The Longmire mysteries

I hadn’t heard of Walt Longmire or Craig Johnson until I stumbled across the A&E series last summer. I hold a warm spot in my heart for the Rocky Mountains, and when I noticed the TV series was set in Wyoming (though apparently filmed in New Mexico), I gave it a look-see. The TV show was very well done. It had believable (mostly, anyway) characters, interesting plots and it did show some beautiful mountain scenery.

Over the winter, I had the chance to read several of Johnson’s books, on which the TV series is based. The books are excellent, much better than the TV version. The characters are noticably more realistic in print. The plots from the books were taken almost verbatim from the books. The TV series has been picked up for a second season — but they’re rapidly running out of books to translate to the small screen. If the series is to continue, it’ll have to take on a life of it own as other writers create new plots based on Johnson’s characters. We’ll see how that goes.

Each book in the Walt Longmire series involves a murder, of course. Aging sheriff Walt Longmire investigates the killing with help from his native American buddy, a sexy young deputy with a penchant for foul language and a yearning to get together with Walt, the elderly former sheriff, and a cast of less important characters. Longmire’s daughter, a lawyer, appears in several of the books. Longmire himself suffers from continuing angst about the death of his wife years before.

Johnson’s writing evokes a strong feel for the rugged Wyoming setting and the challenging weather patterns there. There’s a continuing thread of benevolent supernatural activity in the series — or does Longmire just have a strong imagination?

Another writer, C.J. Box, currently is producing a Wyoming-based series of mysteries. His protagonist is a fish and game officer. That series also deserves a look for both its mystery merit and its use of the western outdoor setting.

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Henning Mankell: “The Fifth Woman”

Henning Mankell has written more than two dozen books from his home in Sweden. I only recently discovered his Kurt Wallender series of mysteries because a coworker mentioned how much she enjoyed the recent PBS TV series based on the books.

I read “The White Lioness” and “The Man Who Smiled.” Both very engaging stories. Currently, I’m reading “The Fifth Woman.”
All the Wallander books are police procedurals, and hinge on the details of thinking through the evidence and following the train of thought of the investigator.

I’m reading these in the English translation from the Swedish originals. With that said, I have to say these books don’t offer stunningly poetic prose. It may be just a side effect of the translation process, but the language in these mysteries is rather pedestrian. The words never fly, but plod along at an unwavering pace. The translations are fine, though my mind stumbles each time at the frequent use of the hyphenated spelling of “no-one” (according to my education, it is two words — “no one”). Despite the lack of musical English, these novels are very engaging.

That’s because the main character is an interesting, flawed person. He’s rather bland in many respects, which adds to his charm as a fiction character. He trudges through his investigations, slowly gathering clues until eventually the solution presents itself.

I look forward to reading more of the Wallander series, though I find I need to space them out read a faster-paced story between doses of Mankell.

Randy Wayne White: “Gone”

Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford series, has introduced a new character in his latest novel, “Gone.”

The new protagonist, Hannah Smith, shares many traits with Doc: She lives virtually across they bay from Dinkins Harbor, she’s a part-time fishing guide and part-time investigator, and there’s a stilt house in the book.

Instead of a former government hitman, however, the new protagonist is a Florida-raised misfit, age 31, who is just discovering the joys of being an attractive female.

And that’s just in the first 25 pages.

The storyline kept me reading, I’ll give White that. But I found the divergence from his logical, get-the-job-done Doc Ford character a bit hard to swallow. Much of “Gone” involves detailed passages about shoes, fashion brand names, vibrators, lesbianism and cute black cocktail dresses. White must be aiming for an entirely new audience.

Included in the narrative are several direct tie-ins with the world of Marion Ford, who makes a couple of barely mentioned indirect appearances. And his hippie spiritualist buddy, Tomlinson, makes a half-page appearance. Hannah bought her boat from the Doc. And in the final pages, she’s making plans to seduce the older man. But if you’re expecting to read a suspenseful, engaging story about conflict, you’re going to be disappointed.

The basic tone of this novel reads like an author trying, with a major amount of discomfort, to write about a protagonist about whom he knows very little. And it shows. Not much really happens in this story. The coastal Florida setting that added so much regional flavor to the early Doc Ford books is lacking, replaced by boxy references to location. The fascinating dynamic between Ford and Tomlinson also is lacking in “Gone,” replaced by a 317-page monologue by Hannah, occasionally accompanied by her gay bodybuilder friend who seems more like a cardboard cutout rather than an actual character in the book. After being the subject of occasional passages throughout the narrative, the villain finally makes an actual appearance right at the end of the book, when he behaves like a caricature of a psychopathic idiot who couldn’t survive a trip to Wal-Mart.

I still love White’s early works, the first dozen or so Doc Ford novels. But he’s been losing his focus the last couple of years. I did not care for “Gone.” Unless White can improve his characterization and setting description and weave some more action into this next effort, I fear the title of this first Hannah Smith novel may be all too applicable to White’s popularity.