J A Garrett

Curiously nerdy posts.

Book review: The Cold Dish

What a rough week. I’ve been down with the flu for most of 2015 so far. I’m finally on the upswing, though, which means it’s time to review yet another book!

This time around, I read The Cold Dish, by Craig Johnson.

The name Walt Longmire might seem familiar, if you’re a fan of the TV show that was on A&E (and now Season 4 will be on Netflix, apparently). I binged the first two seasons on Netflix already, and enjoyed it enough that I decided to take a chance on the book. Because as we all know, the book is always better than the movie/TV show. I was attracted to the show because of its intriguing blend of mystery, modern western, and a small town feel that reminds me of home. While certainly not a perfect show (honestly, I’d say the show is about above average, and not amazing), it was a great way to unwind every night before going to sleep.

I was interested to see if the book could bring the same elements to the table.

The blurb to this book reads like this:

Fans of Ace Atkins, Nevada Barr and Robert B. Parker will love this outstanding first novel, in which New York Times bestselling author Craig Johnson introduces Sheriff Walt Longmire of Wyoming’s Absaroka County. Johnson draws on his deep attachment to the American West to produce a literary mystery of stunning authenticity, and full of memorable characters. After twenty-five years as sheriff of Absaroka County, Walt Longmire’s hopes of finishing out his tenure in peace are dashed when Cody Pritchard is found dead near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Two years earlier, Cody has been one of four high school boys given suspended sentences for raping a local Cheyenne girl. Somebody, it would seem, is seeking vengeance, and Longmire might be the only thing standing between the three remaining boys and a Sharps .45-70 rifle.

With lifelong friend Henry Standing Bear, Deputy Victoria Moretti, and a cast of characters both tragic and humorous enough to fill in the vast emptiness of the high plains, Walt Longmire attempts to see that revenge, a dish best served cold, is never served at all.

If you’re like me, and watched the show, you’d recognize the plot from the Season 1 finale. But don’t fret! Only the setup is the same. Otherwise, they are almost completely different.

Different good, or different bad? On to the review!

What I liked:

The characters. One thing I noticed right off the bat, is how distinctive Johnson makes his characters. I’ve read novels where it was really hard to tell the different characters apart, but you’ll never have any trouble with that in this book. I always appreciate that when I find it. Naturally, having watched the TV show, I can’t help but compare the major ones to their TV counterparts.

-First of all, Walt in the book is VASTLY different from the Walt of the TV show. TV Walt is a stoic, resolute character who almost always does the right thing, is a brilliant detective, and a solemn widower who misses his wife every minute of every day, while holding onto his job as a mental lifeline to when things in his life made more sense.

Book Walt, on the other hand, is out of shape, self-deprecating, unused to having to solve crimes like murders, and openly admits to himself that his marriage to his deceased wife only worked because of their daughter, and otherwise they settled for one another. His series of dates with a rich widow is actually one of the bigger subplots in the book, and his attraction to her is obvious. SPOILER ALERT: Book Walt is a much more interesting character, because he actually has flaws.

– Henry Standing Bear is actually pretty accurate to the book, with one or two important wrinkles added. The book mentions that he is a badass because he served in the special forces in Vietnam. The TV show mentions that he is a badass because… he’s an Indian? I guess it’s the luxury of the medium, but Johnson’s Standing Bear is a much more nuanced character, but with the same lack of contractions in his speech*, and knowledge of the finer things. His bromanace with Walt is one of the better made ones that I’ve read in recent memory… they’re steadfastly loyal friends, the kind that show up when you know you need them, not necessarily when you want them. I wish I had a Henry Standing Bear. Everyone should have one.

*I’m a big fan of this character trait, both because it creates such a distinctive speech pattern (which makes it easy to keep track of who is saying what), but also because it sounds cool. I’ve noticed I use fewer contractions in my daily speech since watching the show because it just makes the language sound… cleaner.

– And Vic? Well, she’s fairly similar, aside from being described as short and Italian, and swearing much more than her TV counterpart.

Well, that, and she isn’t Starbuck.

The plot. The mystery in this book is just that. A mystery. As in, you don’t really know who did it, but there’s a number of suspects for whom it makes sense that they might have killed one of the teens. Walt himself goes through a line of suspects: half of the Cheyanne reservation,-  including his old friend Henry -, Turk (one of his deputies), Omar (a cool character not seen on the show), and even one of the boy’s brothers. It’s a long list because, as Walt himself says, most of the town has at least thought about dispensing justice on the boys for raping a girl and basically getting away with it. It’s hard to figure out who actually went and did it.

It’s a classic style – you travel with the narrator through the facts, and there are indeed enough clues for you to figure it out if you’re sharp, but you probably won’t. Once you reach the final act of the book, the reality of who did it – and why – will hit you in the gut as hard as it hits Walt. And in the epilogue, believe you me,  he is aching for retirement.

The writing. I came in expecting nice little snippets describing the weather of a Wyoming winter. Stuff like “snowflakes the size of silver dollars” and “the orange of the bruised sky” was there to prove me right. What I wasn’t expecting was a nuanced narrator. Walt knows a lot about a lot of stuff, as you might imagine of a man in his fifties. You get history lessons on Little Bighorn, and even some Shakespeare. He’s an immensely pleasurable narrator to traipse through a book with, moreso than I thought. That has a bit to do with being a good character, but you have to give the writer credit too. And Craig Johnson is a great one.

What I didn’t like:

The supernatural element. I came in expecting a straight up country western mystery. I got that, for the most part. But every once in a while, the book tries to veer into the supernatural, and you can never tell if it’s meant to be real, or the weather messing with Walt’s head.

I’m talking stuff like warrior spirits of the Cheyanne walking alongside Walt as he trudges up and down a mountain to save two wounded men in the middle of a snowstorm. Or a Sharps Buffalo rifle that is frequently referred to as haunted. Some of this stuff is explained, but other parts are not.

Look, I’m not against supernatural elements. But I’m not sure if it fit this book well. Just a minor quibble.


The verdict:

This is a first rate mystery novel, with nary a boring character to be found, with plenty of well written intrigue. If you like the show, read this book. If you don’t, but still like a good mystery, read this book anyway. It’s good enough for *****. I will definitely be reading the rest of them at some point.


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