Tuesday, June 13, 2017


DRY BONES by Craig Johnson (Viking, 2015)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When the largest, most complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex is discovered in Absaroka County, it would appear to have nothing to do with Sheriff Walt Longmire. That is, until the Cheyenne rancher on whose land she's found is himself found face down in a turtle pond. As a number of parties vie for ownership of the priceless remains, including rancher Danny Lone Elk’s family, the Cheyenne tribe, the Deputy Attorney General, and a cadre of FBI men, Walt must recruit undersheriff Victoria Moretti, Henry Standing Bear, and Dog to investigate a sixty-six million year-old cold case that’s starting to heat up fast. 

The progression from never having heard of an author, to reading their books, to them elevating themselves to absolute must-read status despite your tottering TBR mountain, can be fascinating.

I read a lot of crime fiction, and yet I still barely scratch the surface of what is out there. I have several favourite authors from years past, and have added many more since I became a reviewer for magazines and newspapers in 2008, and intentionally broadened my reading. This has, unfortunately, meant less time for devouring the entire oeuvre of authors I love, or trying some authors I've heard lots of good things about (but whom I'm not interviewing or covering for a publication at the time).

Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire series, falls into that latter category. He was highly recommended to me by top books blogger Jen Forbus a few years ago (Jen also wrote about Longmire for Crime Watch). So I always had him on my 'need to read him sometime' list - along with several others - but fate and circumstance meant I didn't break my Longmire duck until this year.

In the interim, I'd absolutely devoured all five seasons of the Longmire television series in the past year or so - at the time thinking 'oh, this is based on those books Jen used to rave about'. One of my favourite shows of recent times - sharing top spot with Bosch, also based on a crime fiction series.

While on holiday in New Zealand in January, I took the chance to read The Serpent's Tooth, the ninth Longmire novel. Really enjoyed it. Definitely going to read more. Then yesterday, as a break from all the awards judging I'm doing at the moment, I picked up this book, Dry Bones (the 11th in the series), and found myself unable to put it down. I read it in two sittings, split by sleep.

Belatedly, I've caught up to where Jen recommended I be a few years ago: Craig Johnson's Longmire books are absolutely must-read, go back and work your way through the whole series while waiting for the next one to be published, kind of stuff. I love the setting, the characters, and the stories.

Dry Bones itself starts with two deaths: one of a Tyrannosaurus Rex millions of years ago, and one of an elderly Cheyenne man in the past week. Sheriff Walt Longmire finds his investigation into Danny Lone Elk's death (accident? misadventure? murder?) complicated by the appearance of the new acting Deputy Attorney General in town. A politician looking to make a big splash, Skip Trost has the local dinosaur museum in his sights. They're currently excavating the bones of the T-Rex, discovered by fluke on Danny Lone Elk's land. But who has a claim to the multi-million-dollar old bones?

Although this is only the second Longmire novel I've read, I already love Johnson's writing. He's built a rich world of fascinating characters in an unusual setting for a crime series. The mystery itself is very good, but the real treasure is the Wyoming setting: the people, the issues, and the landscapes.

Johnson has a particularly great knack for dialogue, and revealing character through speech. This isn't the expository info-dumps or fill-the-spaces-between-action dialogue of lesser authors, but snappy, authentic speech that gives readers insights into the speaker via what they say - or don't say - and how they say it. Speech that intrigues the reader, draws us in, and delivers on multiple levels.

I don't want to give too much away about the storyline itself, as there are some important events in the ongoing character arcs of Longmire, his colleagues and loved ones, and the recurring characters who feature throughout the series. So no spoilers there. But I will say that Dry Bones could be enjoyed as a standalone novel by fans news to the series, while at the same time delivering added interest for long-time followers. It's an interesting self-contained story that blends mystery with some unique touches, while at the same time being part of a broader story running throughout the books.

I also enjoy how Johnson enriches our understanding of both modern-day Wyoming, and the history of the state. He does this in unobtrusive ways that don't slow down the story, instead adding layers of interest. Overall, this is a great read that has cemented Johnson among my must-read authors.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading newspapers and magazines in several countries. He's interviewed more than 180 crime writers, appeared onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia,  is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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