“Depth of Winter,” by Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson

Reviewed by Phyllis Wilson Moore

In Craig Johnson’s fourteenth novel, Depth of Winter (Viking, 2018), Sheriff Walt Longmire is far from Absaroka County, Wyoming.  He is in Mexico on a desperate lone-wolf mission to rescue his only daughter from a vicious drug cartel. He has no authority. He has no passport. He is about to experience a reign of terror in a lawless country. People die violently. How many? Nobody keeps count.

The novel is preceded by a quote from Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” Readers take note: This particular epigraph carries a heavy load.  And there is another epigraph to contemplate: “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near the United States,” a quote from Porfirio Diaz, a former Mexican president.  Both epigraphs provide food for thought.

If you are new to the Longmire series you might think of Sheriff Longmire as a new-age John Wayne. College educated and a former Marine, he is formidable in size as well as honorable, intelligent, kind, and witty. He likes to read.

In this novel he is at a distinct disadvantage: he does not speak Spanish and most of the locals don’t speak English. I was in the same boat. The novel is peppered with Mexican history and Spanish speaking characters.  I don’t speak or read Spanish but “Google” rescued me.

The story is also layered with the mention of past and current people: photographers, film directors, actors, jazz musicians, famous conductors, sports heroes, criminals, revolutionaries, and the occasional biblical and literary references.

For example, Longmire has an Ambrose Bierce biography stuffed in his duffel bag, along with handguns, explosives, knives, and twisty ties. (I had to look up the reasons for the twisty ties.)  He admires Bierce’s writing, especially his most anthologized short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” He knows Bierce disappeared in Mexico.

The novel may keep you busy googling words, phrases, names, the history of the Mexican Revolution, and the status of current drug cartels. By page 20, I learned that pendejos means asshole in Spanish and that Mexican cartels often appropriate historical names for their gangs, including that of the Christian crusaders: Knights Templar.

The culture of Mexico is part of the story and the symbolism of the Day of the Dead blends with the plot of the novel. A  November holiday with loud music, dancing, masks, costumes, drinking and drugging, it provides great cover for Longmire.

The novel is long. Its ending includes one of the best hand-to-hand combat scenes ever and the final few pages are surreal in the Ambrose Bierce style.

One caveat: there is no readers’ guide for this work. It took me one day to read the novel and another to look up the Spanish words, literary asides, and personalities—but that was well worth the time. Johnson earned new spurs and a fresh mount with Depth of Winter.

Always an outdoorsman, award-winning author Craig Johnson, a Huntington, West Virginia native turned rancher, then New York Times bestselling novelist, is a man of many talents. A graduate of Huntington’s Marshall University in 1983, he holds a bachelor of arts degree specializing in theater. As a postgraduate, he attended Temple University to study playwriting and refine the art of writing dialogue. His skills are evident in his fourteen novels and the resulting television series created from them.

Before building his ranch house in Wyoming, Johnson was a rambling man.  Now he ranches in the morning and writes in the afternoon. He returns to West Virginia to visit his family and to speak at major events, such as the West Virginia Book Festival.  He credits his birthplace, West Virginia, as the place he learned to love the land and credits his father and grandfather as role models.  His grandfather liked to tell him, “A man covers the ground he stands on.”  Johnson created Walt Longmire with that characteristic in mind. Walt does it well and so does Johnson.

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  1. Glen Graham says

    I picked up this book in the library because the cover (a man wearing a Stetson & other Western or cowboy clothing) hinted that it was a Western. It took but few pages for me to realize that, yes, it was set in the West & even more in northwest Mexico (shades of “The Magnificent Seven”) — BUT rather than being in the “Old West” of the late 1800s to early 1900s it was so contemporary that 21st century hi-tech gadgets are employed in the plot. Well, okay, it was still a thriller (NOT a “mystery”) & I continued reading, although I got uncomfortable with Johnson’s portrayal of Mexicans as being either the most monstrous, homicidal, evil drug lords or else their simplistic victims. Kind of racist!

    Then, when folks began being murdered en masse — except the bad guys who I thought were also dead kept magically reappearing — I felt like I was watching one of those video games that kids love to play because when characters get destroyed they simply reappear & the game goes on. Which is why kids don’t hesitate to blow away their classmates these days. Death is unreal; people will magically come back to life!

    The ending of this novel was terribly dissatisfying. The plot had gotten so convoluted that at the final page I was not at all sure who was still alive & who wasn’t. Was the protagonist (the Sheriff) still alive? Has the closing pages been simply him having a dream sequence? Out of five stars, I’d rate Depth of Winter a one-half star.

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