Saturday, November 12, 2016

An Obvious Fact (Walt Longmire #12) by Craig Johnson

Reading a Craig Johnson mystery is so reassuring. At a time when we have reason to wonder whether our government is working for or against us, here Johnson comes to let us know that there are people of goodwill laying their lives on the line for us every day. The ATF makes an appearance in this novel, and Johnson is kinder to them than he often is to the FBI. The AFT role-play characters that wouldn’t be out of place on the stage, though the guns aren’t toy replicas, and the viewing public is more like the mob.

There is so much information in a Craig Johnson novel, it is sometimes difficult to choose an element to emphasize: geology, geography, popular culture, Indian ways, and in this case … guns and motorcycle rallies. The setting is Hulett, Wyoming, next-door town to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally just across the state line in South Dakota. A very handsome motorcyclist of Cheyenne descent winds up hospitalized, and when Longmire and Henry Standing Bear investigate, they discover that Lola, an old flame of Henry’s, is mother to the boy. Paint from her car is on the wrecked motorcycle.

The ancient battle of the sexes plays out against a backdrop of big stakes, drugs, guns, money. Our perspective is realigned several times as readers struggle to trust anyone in this setting of bikers, races with life-defying odds, secret airports, and glamorous women over fifty years of age who are still dropping the jaws of young, reckless men. The title is explained in the first pages as Henry Standing Bear carries with him a three-volume set of The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

One of the compelling features of Craig Johnson’s novels are that things like MRAPs have a certain kind of logic in one-road midwest border towns. We know the federal government has “retired” some of their military vehicles to towns willing to put up some rationale and some cash, but finding one in Hulett can be a goldmine to an inventive fiction writer. I appreciate Johnson’s sense of humor about these things, giving the vehicle a starring role, but once he mentioned it in the beginning we knew he was going to have to use it before the end.

There is little evidence of the supernatural in this novel, unless one counts the outstanding story-within-a-story about the skeet shoot starring none other than Walt’s foul-mouthed undersheriff Vic, who returned to Wyoming from her failed search for the murderer of her cop brother in Philadelphia. Walt’s daughter in Denver calls a couple of times with news of Walt’s granddaughter, Lola, and with answers to puzzles. Cady is so familiar now to readers of the series that she no longer needs to be identified by name.

Johnson’s series is so easy-going and inventive that it is easy to forget how difficult it is to construct a story where readers are stumped all the way to the end. And all the while we are ambling through some gorgeous country, getting a taste of local habits, and specialities like dinner plate-sized pancakes. For me, the best might be that I discovered the name of a geologic formation that my parents had visited way back before I was born when they travelled across country in an early Ford. Last year I found some photographs tucked away from those early days and knew that place, Devil’s Tower, must be something special, rising as it does 1,267 feet from the plain in northeast Wyoming, the site of America’s first national monument.

Many thanks to a kind friend who sent me a signed first edition of this fine novel. I am so glad I had a copy to pick me up after an emotionally-draining week getting battered at the ballot box. Many of the folks who reside in Walt Longmire’s neck of the woods voted for our new president-elect. It is my everlasting hope that those residents are more like the good guys in Johnson’s novels than the bad ones. A Sherlock Holmes quote seems suitable, since Henry scatters them throughout this episode. “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius.” Let’s hope they know what they were doing this election.

Wyoming's official state motto is "Equal Rights," leading to it being called The Equality State. "Wyoming was the first state to grant women the right to vote in 1869 (more precisely, women were granted the right to vote so there would be enough voting citizens to meet the population requirement for statehood)." [Website of State Symbols]

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