HELL IS EMPTY by Craig Johnson

Book Quote:

“The snow was already creating ridges around me, the high points of my profile forming sculpted edges, but it seemed different, as if the snow was not only changing colors but texture, too. Sand; it was like sand, and as I watched, the wind began to winnow the dunes — and then me along with them. First the shoulder that I’d damaged in Vietnam folded into itself and blew away, my ear, then a leg, a hand, quickly followed by a wrist, a foot. It was all very strange, as if I were watching myself disintegrate into the wind.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirstin Merrihew  (JUN 30, 2011)

William Walk Sacred describes the Native American vision quest experience as a time when, “You are presenting yourself before the Great Spirit and saying, ‘Here I am. I am pitiful. I am naked.” “You’re down to the nitty gritty of who you are.” He adds, “You cannot go off the path at that point because you are now owned by the spirits. They watch you continuously. There is no hiding.” This quest to gain spiritual insights and to, in effect, travel to God, can be compared to the allegorical journey taken in Dante’s The Divine Comedy in which a soul moves through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Of course, hell (Inferno) is the most gripping. The ninth circle of Dante’s hell holds those guilty of treachery in an icy prison, with Satan encased waist-high in the center. How fitting then that Sheriff Walt Longmire of Absaroka County, Wyoming should find himself in a mountain snow storm with a beat-up copy of Dante’s Inferno, battling the elements, violent men, his own limits of endurance, and mysteries of the mind and spirit — in effect, undergoing his own involuntary vision quest.

Walt begins this arduous journey sitting in a restaurant with four convicts he and Deputy Saizarbitoria (the Basquo) intend to deliver to the feds. Three of the cons are confirmed murderers already, and some black humor serves as table talk as the lawmen keep count of how many times Marcel Popp threatens to kill them. Tension crackles even this early as one wonders whether there will be an escape attempt before they even finish their meal. The suspense builds about when it will happen (the escape) because of course it must for the novel to proceed, yet the reader is still surprised when and how it occurs.

Searching for these desperate escapees who have taken hostages with them onto higher ground, Walt has a head start on other law enforcement and refuses to slow down to let them catch up, fearing that to do so could cost more innocent lives than have already been taken. As he doggedly tracks the men and is able to somewhat winnow down the human odds against him, he faces other (weather-driven) obstacles. He finds himself pinned under a snow vehicle at one point. A ferocious wildfire bears down on him at another. Exhaustion and injuries test the sheriff to the max, and he isn’t sure he is going to survive this search for the most dangerous of the convicts: Shade (yes, Inferno reveals its shades too…). Fortunately, Virgil, a seven-foot Native American who wears a bear skin complete with head, comes to Walt’s aid, providing him with shelter and challenging him to a makeshift game of chess while waiting for the dead of night to pass. Virgil is more than a passing character though. Walt isn’t sure how to tell him that one of Shade’s murders is both the spur for this escape from custody and directly connected to Virgil. During one of the sheriff’s direst intervals, Walt implores Virgil, “…I’m not going to make it — and I need to tell you something.”

Shade is a man driven by his past and the commands of the disembodied. Voices (spirits?) speak to Shade and early on at the restaurant, he tells Walt: “I didn’t have to go to the bathroom but wanted to speak to you alone about the snow and the voices.” He believes the lawman may experience the spirits too and doesn’t want to be the only one who goes through a private, hellish spiritual quest. Indeed, Walt and Virgil seem to flicker in and out of “normal” existence as they unrelentingly tramp on in pursuit of Shade, trading dialogue on their uncertainty about where the line is between life and death. One says to the other, “Well, whichever one of us is dead, we’d better get going. I’d hate to think that the Old Ones went to all the trouble of bringing us back and that we couldn’t get the job done.” Getting the job done will only be possible if Walt can brave everything in his path and hold true to himself when his mind is stripped naked before nature and Reality.

Hell is Empty is described by author Craig Johnson as “the most challenging novel I’ve attempted so far and, like Dante, I would’ve found it difficult to make such an effort without my own guides into the nether regions.” Although this is the seventh Walt Longmire novel, I’ve only had the opportunity to read one other:  Junkyard Dogs, the book published before this one. So, I cannot gauge whether Hell outshines all predecessors. I did think it was the superior read in relation to Dogs. However, the two novels arguably satisfy different literary appetites. While this novel is a meaty existential thriller about a man down to the barest threads of his own consciousness, Dogs is a tale of a group of misfits whose walk on the wrong side of the law causes them to come to bad ends. There is a sense of justice by mishap imposed on dumb but not so malicious meddling. However, intentional criminality creeps in as the catalyst for what goes down. Although this is primarily a review of Hell, I’d like to go into a little detail about Dogs:

The opening has Walt investigating an improbable “accident” revolving around a young woman, Gina Steward, who drove off from home in her car. A car to which her husband, Duane, had tied an old man for “safety” while the old guy was working on the family roof. Naturally, the senior citizen, the “Grampus” of the Stewart clan, went for an unexpected open-air ride, and it was a while before Gina, who didn’t notice her bouncing baggage, could be stopped. Fortunately, Grampus Geo Stewart survived this rough road excursion.

The Stewarts run a junkyard, complete with menacing junkyard dogs, adjacent to a relatively new development of expensive homes, and Ozzie Dobbs Jr. frets about what that does to his inherited investment in the development. On the other hand, Ozzie’s mother and Geo are a cozy, if clandestine, couple (ala Hatfields and McCoys or Romeo and Juliet, take your pick). Pretty soon Walt and his loyal department have two suspicious deaths on their hands and have to tease out the clues. Will Walt and his people find that that the junkyard guard dogs’ ferocity can’t match that of their human masters? Or are the people more victims of society or circumstance than anything else? No especially big revelations about human nature rise to the top, but the plot moves quickly and ends cleverly. It’s a sharp, sometimes laugh-out-loud mystery honing a dark edge to a group of seeming bumblers. It’s tone and subject matter stride along most entertainingly. However its tale is, as mentioned, less weighty than that of Hell is Empty.

Walt Longmire reminds me of Walt Fleming, the Idaho sheriff who stars in a series by Ridley Pierson. Then too, bookshelves abound with crime series in scenic, untamed geographic locations with a main hero, a beloved crew of trusty sidekicks, and, usually, a love interest who is somehow connected to law enforcement too. Craig Johnson is obviously practiced at delivering plots that make putting down the book very undesirable. His protagonist is someone a reader can feel good to be around — which adds a reading comfort level since the stories are told in the first person. Even though they are part of a busy niche, the Walt Longmire mysteries belong toward the front of the queue.

Hell is Empty is Craig Johnson’s effort to stretch his writing abilities. No slouch before, he has done an admirable job. His taut mixture of action and character development is nearly flawless, and his literary dollops enrich the novel. Man versus mountain, man versus man, man versus mind, man versus The Beyond. What could be better?

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 53 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult (June 2, 2011)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew


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June 30, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Reading Guide, Sleuths Series, US Frontier West, Wild West

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