THE WESTERN STAR
By Craig Johnson
Viking, $28.00, 304 pages
I first became acquainted with Craig Johnson’s fictional modern-day Western sheriff by watching the TV series “Longmire,” which is based on Mr. Johnson’s novels. (The show first appeared on A&E and is now on Netflix). I liked the Walt Longmire character and the rural crime stories, so I began reading the books. With most crime dramas set in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, it is refreshing that Mr. Johnson’s novels are set in the fictitious Absarka County of Wyoming.
Walt Longmire is a big man who is taciturn and possesses a dry sense of humor. Mr. Johnson describes him as overage, overweight and overly depressed, but he still gets up in the morning and tries to do his job. Like his previous novels, “The Western Star” offers a modern take on what Mr. Johnson calls the cowboy mythos and the romance of the epic West.
The novel opens in the present time with Sheriff Longmire having a beer with Iron Cloud, an Arapaho sheriff, after completing a weapons certification course with his sidearm, a Colt 1911A1 .45, at the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy in Cheyenne.
Sheriff Longmire requalified at the academy every four years, which coincided with the scheduled four-year parole hearing of one of the most dangerous men he has ever arrested. This year the criminal is using medical reasons for his parole and Longmire is dead set against him being released from his life sentence.
Sheriff Longmire, the narrator of the story, tells us that Iron Cloud looked at some of the old photos of Lucian Connelly, Absarka County’s previous sheriff, and other Wyoming sheriffs hung on the walls of the LaBonte hotel bar, and noted that there was a lot history up there.
“It was true. The bar’s slogan is “Tell ‘em I’ll meet you at the LaBonte,” and I’d spent many an hour combing the extensive collection of photos commemorating Wyoming peace officers that took in the history of the state from when it was an Indian territory to the present, a legacy that included small tin-types, 8x10s, and even a few movie posters,” Longmire tells the reader.
“There were more than a few photos of Lucian, including the one of him in the hospital when they had just finished amputating the leg bootlegger Beltran Extepare had attempted to remove with a shotgun in his own dynamic fashion. Lucian, with a nurse pulled onto his bed, is grinning widely and giving the camera a thumbs up. Iron Cloud fixed on a photo of Joe LeFors, the man had famously gotten the murder confession from Tom Horn and been responsible for running Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all the way to South America.”
Iron Cloud asked Longmire if it had been tougher back then. Longmire replied that he wouldn’t know, as LeFors died in 1940. Longmire said he was old, but not that old. Iron Cloud meant when Longmire worked for Lucian Connelly, whom he called an old coot.
” ‘He wasn’t old then.’ I shook my head. ‘And he was a good teacher. I was going through a lot of stuff when I got back from the war; and he was patient with me.’ “
Iron Cloud looked at a photo of a row of sheriffs standing in front of a train. He announced to the others at the bar that the train was the Western Star, the sheriff’s train that ran from 1948 to 1972. Lucian Connelly corrected him. He explained that the Star was steam and that was a diesel in the photo.
“A photographer from the Cheyenne Tribune had all of the sheriffs stand in front of the locomotive as he was in a hurry and didn’t want to wait until they could pull the real Star out of the Union Pacific roundhouse.”
The old photo transports Longmire back to 1972 when he was just home from Vietnam and became a deputy sheriff. He joined Lucian Connelly on the Wyoming Sheriff’s Association annual junket held on the Western Star, which ran the length of Wyoming from Cheyenne to Evanston and back.
Longmire, carrying his trusty Colt and a paperback copy of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” said goodbye to his wife at the station. Pondering his young and troubled marriage, he boarded the Western Star. In store for Longmire on this train journey with 24 sheriffs and other characters was a murder mystery that would haunt him for years.
“The Western Star” offers the series’ regular supporting characters, such as Longmire’s undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, a tough and tough-talking former South Philly cop. Also appearing is Henry Standing Bear, Longmire’s lifelong Cheyenne friend, and Longmire’s daughter Cady.
“The Western Star,” which is sort of a homage to “Murder on the Orient Express,” is an entertaining and suspenseful crime novel.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.