Craig Johnson – “Dry Bones”

Dry BonesI listen to Craig Johnson novels on audio for one reason: George Guidall.

George Guidall is the voice of Walt Longmire. He perfectly captures Longmire’s wise, calm inner workings. As fans of the main character know, Sheriff Longmire never gets too excited and Guidall shifts from general befuddlement to rising alarm to stubborn insistence in smooth fashion.

Together, Guidall’s narration—as natural as sitting around a campfire—is made that much more sublime due to Craig Johnson’s easy-going prose and the steady rhythms of his velvet narrative style. The pacing is exquisite, the details are wonderful, and the plot charges ahead on a natural roll. Nothing feels forced. Johnson’s prose is a master class in subtraction—only the needed details—and steady forward momentum.

I don’t know about other Craig Johnson readers, but I live for the colorful touches as much as the big plot. A pack of dogs is “the canine mafia.” A one-year old “escapes from everything like a miniature Houdini.” And at one point Vic smiles with “the kind of smile cats reserve for their dealings with mice.”

As reviewer Kevin Tipple and many others have pointed out, Johnson’s books and the television series “Longmire” are two different animals.  The books are first-person. They ride on Longmire’s big-world view. He has ample reason to be jaded and biting, but he’s open hearted. He’s in charge, sure, but nobody needs to know he’s the smartest guy in the fictional Wyoming county where he keeps order. He gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. Longmire’s feet are so firmly planted on the ground that he makes ghosts as real as the dogs, trucks and Vic’s colorful language. There are multiple double-meanings of ‘dry bones’ in this yarn (including a nifty lesson on cremation);  the best reference might be Longmire’s own marrow.

Unfortunately, the television show relies on a more traditional cop show mentality and, of course, can’t possibly let us in on the steady observations and attitudes that gives the books their fine style. It’s possible you’ve seen the show and don’t think you would enjoy the books. That would be a big mistake.  If anything, treat the television series like a gateway drug. (I’m writing this before getting a chance to see what Netflix does with the “Longmire” production; I’m hoping they open it up a bit and let it breathe.)

As stories go, Dry Bones is up there with my other favorite, Hell is Empty. The good news here is that Johnson isn’t mailing it in, despite the success of both the books and show. (I’d be surprised if he ever did.)

Dry Bones involves a gem of a plot ignited by two events. The first is the discovery of a complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton—and possibly one of the best examples ever found. The second is the death of Danny Lone Elk, whose body is found being nibbled by turtles in a fishing hole. Murder? Natural causes?

The fight over ownership and the future of the skeleton and the investigation into the murder (hey, we know it’s murder—this is a murder mystery series) are smoothly interwoven with Longmire’s warm humor and ability to endure a variety of ordeals that both man and nature hurl his way.  A subplot deals with the pending visit of Longmire’s daughter and granddaughter and then a tragedy back in Philadelphia adds a solid hunk of emotional weight, as if Longmire’s load wasn’t quite heavy enough.

There will no scenery chewing, however, nothing too over the top. Walt Longmire sucks it up, keeps moving right along.

Even given the most shocking news of all, Walt keeps it all in: “It’s a fact that the planet rotates at approximately 1,040 miles per hour, but there are those moments when the world just stops, magnetic poles be damned; you just stop the world with the weight of your own solitary gravitas.”

Listening to George Guidall, you’ll feel that “gravitas” right down in your own dry bones.

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Previous reviews of Walt Longmire novels:

Serpent’s Tooth

Junkyard Dogs

Hell is Empty 

As the Crow Flies

Craig Johnson’s website