I’m not overly familiar with mystery novels, so I can’t compare this to other examples of the genre. I do know, however, that this is a very good book.
Johnson’s prose often stumbles, and there are ways in which the novel fails. It’s often difficult to follow some of the faster-paced scenes, and the boys who are the victims/suspects seem, along with their families, interchangeable, hollow, and forgettable. Similarly, the character of Omar seems like some kind of bizarre, half-realized combination of history professor, oil tycoon, and mean-spirited good ol’ boy. Johnson’s tendency to end chapters with “cliff-hanger” sentences that really aren’t all that cliff-hanging feels forced, and his recurring allusions to classic literature seem like strangely out-of-placed posturing. A chase that occupies the last third of the novel doesn’t really make sense–why is the individual running away? what’s the impetus?–and is never really explained in any actually satisfying way. In other words, this is not great literature-as should come as no surprise to anyone. But that’s ultimately irrelevant, as this is still a damn good book.
Johnson’s pacing is perfect, and he brilliantly ties together some moments of real slapstick hilarity, high drama, and heart-breaking emotion in just a few pages. It’s a great adventure, and the evocations of the place are perfect–you really do feel like you’re riding along with Sheriff Longmire through the high plains of Wyoming, that the snow is falling around you. The main characters are very well done, memorable, and manage to feel familiar while resisting the stock character stereotypes. The plot twist at the end is painfully emotional, gut-wrenching, and superbly done. And beyond this, Johnson is able to do some real good with the book. He’s not just writing a mystery-adventure, he’s writing a very smart and nuanced portrait of the Vietnam generation struggling to deal with the open wounds that still fester on their souls, of how violence done in the past–whether the personal past of a character, or the communal past of the Cheyenne people–lives with us, haunts, us, and does things to us we can’t always control because we can’t recognize these ghosts for what they are. It’s a book about friendship and family and honor, and how those three things affect one another.
Yes, Johnson’s prose is bad sometimes. Yes, there are cheesy and silly moments that make little sense or just induce eye-rolling. But if you give yourself up to the world of Absaroka County, Wyoming, you’ll be entranced by a vital and fascinating set of characters, an incredibly moving and beautiful natural setting, and most importantly by a morality tale that is effortlessly executed, unpretentious, and incredibly profound. In that, Johnson might not be writing great literature–but he’s doing what great literature should always ask us to consider–who am I, in this place, and what is my duty to it and the others who also live in it?
I will be reading the rest of these books then, and relishing every moment–even if I skip a page or two or skim over a needless literary allusion or three.