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The Cold Dish, Craig Johnson, Penguin, $14.00.

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

Being in the book business, I'm always on the lookout for the next big thing, the kind of author with so much talent and drive that anyone who buys one of their works will be back the next day to buy the rest. I've seen writers like Lee Child and Michael Connelly go from buzz to best seller, and I love that brief window of opportunity when I can handsell a relatively unknown author I know will knock people out.

Craig Johnson is a new voice that his publisher Penguin believes can become the next Hillerman. Both Craig and Penguin have sent our bookshop posters, postcards and various promotional items (word to the wise - chocolate and money work best) in order to bring him to the attention of our customers. Johnson's protagonist is Walt Longmire, an aging, small town sheriff in Wyoming. (The aging thing is always a poignant touch, but it can get awkward when it's the starting point in a continuing series - those Vietnam vets aren't going to be able to keep punching people out for very much longer). Walt's rather pedestrian duties are suddenly enlivened by the death of a young man who had been involved in the gang rape of a Native American girl. When a second guilty party is also killed it becomes apparent that the first death was no accident, and unless the crimes are solved, the town could explode.

Longmire is a likeable, gruff and very decent character, a man just emerging from mourning the death of his long time wife, and the reader is drawn effortlessly into his world. Johnson skillfully immerses the reader in the rhythms and mores of the West, smoothly integrating history and folklore into the evocative landscape. Like Hillerman, he captures the dangerous beauty of the area as well as the equally dangerous tensions between the Native Americans and the rest of the community.

I found the middle of the book less compelling, however. Small town policing can get pretty tedious at times, and it's challenging to present that is a way that's true to life yet maintains the pace of the book, a challenge that Johnson's not always up to. I also found some of the characters like the-pithy-member-of-a-minority-best-friend and the-beautiful-rich-woman-known-in-childhood-from-the-other-side-of-the-class-divide to be a little stock.

But the sting is in the tail, as they say, and for me Johnson's ending more than redeemed any reservations I may have had, and in fact turned some of them on their head. He delivers the kind of kick ass, gut wrenching, truly surprising resolution that not too many writers can pull off these days, and it made me immediately yearn for Death Without Company, the next book in the series. Craig Johnson may not be the next big thing, but he'll definitely do until it comes along. (Jamie)


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