Friday, October 31, 2014

Reading a "First Book" by an Established Author: THE COLD DISH, Craig Johnson

I review a lot of "first books" by mystery and thriller authors, and usually I mention this either by saying (1) it's got some small flaws (like most first books) but it's so good that I want to read the next one or (2) this is so good that the author must have written some other books first (that maybe didn't get to publication) -- incredibly good with no sign of being a first book!

Last week I took time away from the incoming stacks to read Craig Johnson's first, which is also the first Walt Longmire mystery, set in northern Wyoming -- it dates back to December 2004, but just became widely known because a TV network turned Johnson's series into the rave-reviewed LONGMIRE series (incomprehesively canceled recently in someone's short-sighted business decision, but so good that it's sure to rise again).

I enjoyed every page. I didn't skim any of it. And it definitely did not feel like a first book (but hold that thought).

All the heart-ache elements of Walt Longmire ring true: his understandable alcohol problem (his wife died unexpectedly, he's living in the unfinished house that was going to be their home together, his job has a certain built-in instability); his deep friendship across ethnic boundaries with Henry Laughing Bear, cemented by the war experiences they have in common; his wordless longing for comfort that become obvious when a woman looks at him kindly, but on which he's powerless to act. The plot elements and twists are polished and smooth; the tension and pace -- as Longmire tries to figure out who is taking revenge on a group of casual and ugly-hearted rapists -- steadily ramp upward, and an intense early-season snowstorm and a set of powerful firearms in the wrong hands drive the threat to page-turner level.

In fact, the only thing that bothered me was, when Longmire finally figured out the killer, he was still struggling with the motive, even when he knew who it must have been. I didn't feel like I'd had enough hints along the way to be able to urge him to the right conclusion (haven't you done that as you've seen what the sleuth has overlooked?). And when I mentioned this to Dave, who has read ALL of the 11 books Johnson's provided, Dave tipped his head to the side and commented mildly, "Well, it is his first book, you know."

Yes, it is. Thank goodness there's that tiny, tiny weak spot, where I can reassure myself, "This author wasn't born into the life of mystery writing with all connections already at professional level."

But so close, so close. I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of Johnson's Longmire series.

PS: The title, in case you haven't guessed, is from the translated French expression, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." Pierre Ambroise Fran├žois Cholderlos de la Clos.

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