I asked crime novelist Craig Johnson how he would describe his character Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire.
“Decent,” Craig Johnson replied. “It is a word that you don’t hear so much anymore. When we were growing up, that’s what you heard all the time. People said be decent to each other, be kind to each other.
“I think Walt kind of embodies a certain aspect of a lost American culture. He is decent and he does care, and he is looking out for the people in his county. Whenever I do ride-alongs with these sheriffs here in Wyoming, Montana and other places, I hear them say all the time, “my people, and my people this and that.” They take it very personally. People having entrusted them with the most treasured thing they have — their vote. They are connected.”
Mr. Johnson went on to say that Longmire has a code that he lives by and he is a throwback to the early cinema Western heroes, although he grants that Longmire is facing a more complex world today.
I first became acquainted with the modern-day sheriff by watching the television series “Longmire,” which was based on Mr. Johnson’s novels. The show originally appeared on A&E and later moved to Netflix. Walt Longmire was portrayed by Australian actor Robert Taylor and Katee Sackhoff portrayed his deputy, Victoria “Vic” Moretti, a transplanted South Philly Italian-American and former Philly cop. Lou Diamond Phillips portrayed Henry Standing Bear, Longmire’s best friend. The series also offered a good number of supporting cast members.
Mr. Johnson has written 15 novels about Walt Longmire, the sheriff of the fictious Absarka County in Wyoming. His latest novel is “Land of Wolves,” which I reviewed here.
Mr. Johnson said that prior to writing the novels he ran into two Wyoming state investigators.
“We only have one crime lab in the entire state,” Mr. Johnson recalled. “I asked them how long it takes to get DNA evidence and one investigator asked me if this was a high-profile case. I said let’s pretend it is, and he said it would take nine months.
“So I said what they are doing in these books, television movies and movies are not particularly honest. The investigator said to me, no they are not.”
Mr. Johnson had the idea that if a fictional protagonist was the sheriff of the least-populated county in the least-populated state, the rural location would force the writer to deal more with character and place. In a place like Wyoming, he said, technology has its limitations.
“People ask me why Walt doesn’t carry a cell phone. Well. unless you’re going to take selfies with a pronghorn antelope, a cell phone is not much use without towers. Nature can be very persuasive in coming up against technology.”
Walt Longmire, a big and taciturn man with a dry sense of humor, has been described by Mr. Johnson as “overage, overweight and overly depressed, but he still gets up in the morning and tries to do his job.” As I noted in my review, his crime novels offer a modern take on what he calls the cowboy mythos and the romance of the epic West
“One of the secret weapons I gave Walt was he reads,” Mr. Johnson told me. “He reads everything, and he retains it. Walt is many ways haunted by literature. He was an English major when he was an offensive lineman at USC. I think it is an element that kind of assists the books.”
Walt Longmore is our narrator in the novels and the well-read sheriff presents a good number of facts on geography, literature and history that are pertinent to the story. The novels also offer abundant humor and clever dialogue between Longmire and his deputy, Vic Moretti, and other characters.
Mr. Johnson said that one of the more difficult parts of writing a crime fiction series was that you need to work hard to come up with good antagonists to pit against your protagonist.
“One of my favorite quotes from the Northern Cheyenne is “You judge a man by the strength of his enemies,” Mr. Johnson said. “You spend all this time developing these characters, making them as multi-faceted as you possibly can, making them interesting and hopefully witty and intelligent and all these things — and then you kill them off.”
I asked Craig Johnson if local sheriffs identified with his Longmire character.
“They do as a matter of fact,” he replied. “He is emblematic when they think of the qualities that Western sheriffs use. They talk low. They talk slow. And not too much.”
Craig Johnson loved the TV series “Longmire,” but he said that Hollywood can’t compete with a reader’s imagination.
• Paul Davis On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction, mysteries and thrillers.