Craig Johnson – “Hell is Empty”

A moment of thanks to the narrators who spend countless hours, long days and endless weeks in a booth reading with an exquisite touch so my driving time means, quite simply, great entertainment. Stop for a moment and contemplate George Guidall: he’s recorded over 900 unabridged books on audio.  Over 900.

And “Hell is Empty” has to be one of his best. I don’t know what the producers are going to do with the A&E television show that’s in the works, but Guidall climbs inside Sheriff Walt Longmire’s head and makes camp. He’s got a bonfire going. It’s going to be a long night. You just sit back and listen, stare into the embers and soak it in. You can almost hear the sips of whiskey as Guidall takes his time and as Longmire struggles with each new physical and mental challenge.

Guidall nails Longmire’s burdens, heart, soul and voice.

“Hell is Empty” is one long slog up Cloud Peak in Wyoming. It’s an extended chase scene disguised in the very loose form of a mystery novel. It’s also an existential journey that touches on good and evil, life and death, dedications and obligations, mountain peaks of insight and the depths of misery. It’s about confronting your demons, taking on your enemies.

To my tastes, “Hell is Empty” is more character study than tale of suspense but the slow-motion pursuit up this snowy, rugged peak certainly has its hair-raising moments. The effect is cumulative, however, and not about one moment or another.

As Longmire makes his way up the mountain, he faces multiple brushes with death and pushes his own physical limitations. But it’s his conversations with Virgil White Buffalo that make “Hell is Empty” sing (and Guidall’s slow baritone that makes it resonate).  Virgil wears a bear head and cape, adding to the mysticism as they converse. Longmire once had Virgil White Buffalo in his county jail “when I’d mistakenly arrested him for the murder of a young Asian woman. He’d assisted me in apprehending the actual culprit but then had melted into the Bighorn Mountains.”

In their first exchange, they are huddled in Virgil’s high-up cave and Longmire asks how Virgil got the bear head and cape. Says Virgil: “He was a neighbor, but we ended up not getting along.’”

Virgil becomes Longmire’s spiritual advisor, stoic cheerleader, all-knowing seer and spirit guide. “You have great sorrows burning in your heart,” Virgil tells Longmire.

When Longmire asks if Virgil is “telling futures,” Virgil replies: “I am. How do you like yours?”

The climb continues, the peak draws closer, the end is nigh. Along the way, Longmire consults a battered paperback copy of Dante’s Inferno. Climbing higher as he probes the further depths of hell might be pushing the “corny” button but not in Johnson’s capable, understated style.  “Hell is Empty” is a pleasure to absorb.

The cold closes in, the light plays tricks. “There were shadows ahead, indistinct and nebulous, writhing with the flying snow. I tried to concentrate on the shapes, but as soon as I looked, they would swirl away and dissolve in the dark air.”

I won’t go on and on.  I enjoyed “Hell is Empty” about as much as any mystery or other novel I’ve read in several years. I highly recommend Julia Buckley’s interview with Craig Johnson for more insight about Johnson’s approach:

And yes, have George Guidall tell you this story.  It’s killer stuff.


4 responses to “Craig Johnson – “Hell is Empty”

  1. I love mysteries where the setting, or weather, plays a role. This sounds great! Thanks for the review.

  2. This is 99 percent outdoors and there would be no “Hell is Empty” without some very rough weather. Thanks, Jenny !

  3. Pingback: Craig Johnson – “Junkyard Dogs” | Don't Need A Diagram

  4. Pingback: Craig Johnson – “Dry Bones” | Don't Need A Diagram

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