As Craig Johnson knows all too well, the written version of the semi-jaded, semi-tough Walt Longmire fairly clobbers the two-dimensional approach on television.
“A Serpent’s Tooth” is the ninth full-length mystery about the grizzled, seen-it-all sheriff from fictional Absaroka County, and it’s every bit as good as its predecessors (although I am quite partial to “Hell is Empty” as the best in the series so far).
I’m perfectly fine with the television version as the gateway drug if it inspires viewers to pick up the books. Let’s hope. But the problem with television’s attempt is that Robert Taylor, hard as he tries, can’t begin to let us in on the thoughts and attitude of the page-turning version of Longmire. In print, the first-person narrative lets us hear Longmire’s nimble mind and open heart. Yes, there are some dark clouds but he doesn’t dwell in the shade they produce. In print, we get glimpses of Longmire’s world view and his non-flashy intellect. On television, we get stern jaws, car crashes and drawn guns. Posing.
In the books, Longmire’s gentle humor is keenly intertwined with a sincere affection for the enormous variety of conditions and traits that fall under the general definition of “human being.” Longmire is bemused by his coworkers and not out to change one thing about the way his sheriff’s office functions (or doesn’t). He’s the relative newcomer in the long history of civilization in these parts and he knows his role. He is the walking embodiment of “let it be.” Unless you screw up, of course. His morals aren’t overly narrow. He wears his badge lightly but will take care of business when the situation or facts require otherwise.
The television version suffers from trying to disguise New Mexico as Wyoming (if you live out this way, believe me, you know the difference) and the show’s vibe rings heavy-dark. The books are light on their feet; while the show plays like a mash-up of second-rate “Mannix” and CSI-Absaroka.
Nonetheless, a western-mystery series on the tube is welcome. The shows aren’t unwatchable (sorry if that’s faint praise) and Lou Diamond Phillips is very good as Henry Standing Bear. Walt Longmire deserves a huge audience.
“A Serpent’s Tooth” is solid. The plot involves a Mormon “lost boy” and the search for a missing woman and, ultimately, a nifty conspiracy designed to illegally tap….oh, read the book. The plot serves as a vehicle for Walt to figure out the bad guys and ferret out their motives but also as a chance for us to spend time getting to know Walt’s insights about humanity and his catalog of colorful trivia.
“As I thought about some of the things Sheriff Crutchley had said, I spotted one of the .45 dumdum rounds that must’ve rolled off the top of my desk. I picked it up and held it in from of my face. Neville Bertie-Clay, the British army officer who had worked at the Dum Dum Arsenal near Calcutta, had developed the hollow or soft point bullet that to this day carried the arsenal’s name. The things should have been called the Bertie-Berties.”
Longmire doesn’t wear his smarts on his sleeve. As readers, we get access to his thoughts and brainpower but Longmire is neither paternalistic or preachy or professorial toward the crew that surrounds him. He doesn’t use his previous military time or his IQ as a reason to judge. If anything, Longmire urges us all to admire the view, marvel at the wide array of personalities out there, and not take things too seriously.
Longmire is utterly human—and one of the most engaging, easy-going law enforcement officers around.