★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Walt Longmire is sheriff of the least populated county in one of the least populated states, or so he likes to remind us. The population is so small, in fact, he has Deputy Vic hunting up talis jurors (bystander) at the grocery store before a blizzard is due. He’s about to head home when he gets a call from Lucian, prior sheriff and now terror of the Durant Home for Assisted Living. A resident has died and Lucian wants the room sealed and an autopsy on the deceased. When Walt questions why, Lucian has a response:
“He looked old just then; small, old, and tired, as I had never seen him before. His eyes returned to the dead lights of the tree. ‘She was my wife.’”
Walt is shocked, but despite his doubts as to the likelihood of a murder, he does some investigating. The deceased woman, Mari Baroja, controlled lucrative mineral rights on a large piece of land, and the heirs are circling with lawyers in tow. Walt has his hands full; he’s still mourning the end of an almost-relationship, a blizzard looks to be settling in, the department needs a replacement deputy, and his daughter is on her way back to Wyoming from Philly. Dealing with Lucian and hiring new blood brings back memories of when Walt himself applied and first met Lucian.
Understated, subtle humor weaves through the book, particularly in Walt’s inner thoughts. Humor of the confrontational sort is gleefully provided by Deputy Vic. Walt’s humor, however, never overpowers to the mood or situation:
“I walked between the two people at the desk and loomed over Janine, whom I had a special fondness for whenever I remembered that she is Ruby’s granddaughter.“
“He finished his coffee and dropped the cup into the biohazard container with the gloves. I agreed with his diagnosis and tossed mine in too“
“…knowing that he and XX were in cahoots, cahoots being a legal term in Wyoming, see cahooting in the first degree, intent to cahoot, and so on.”
I enjoyed the plotting, which was complex enough that the ending had a surprising twist. A nice variety of people are introduced that give flavor to the small town. Many had very little to do with the case, appreciated in a mystery, when all too often each character has a concrete plot-related role. Santiago Saizarbitoria is a prospective deputy who seems almost too good to be true with his polite demeanor and a surprising facility with languages. I found myself enjoying witnessing Walt, Ruby and Vic adjust to the newcomer. Despite twenty-five years as a deputy, Walt discovers there is still more to learn about the people in his life:
“I looked up at the large map of the county that was illuminated by the flat, winter sun and wondered where the hell I was. The place on the wall wasn’t where I happened to be as of late; I was in a strange new place, a place where the people I had safely put on shelves were wandering around getting into messy things.“
What draws me to the series is the writing. Issues of race and ethnicity are woven into the story in a matter-of-fact way, an appreciated and realistic nod to diversity. Johnson is very good at being evocative, describing people and scenes without distracting, ostentatious prose. The tone is perfectly in keeping with the character of collegiate sheriff whose values are rooted in the simple life:
“Passion is a strange thing, a thing that warps and twists everything with which it comes in contact. It was like the combination of moisture and sunshine on wood; sometimes it turned out all right, most of the times it didn’t, but you couldn’t ignore its strength.”
If I have any complaint, it is the first person flashback that is used for Mari, a flashback that comes through Lucian’s storytelling, not through any other experience. Awkward and overly explicit for the situation, it also involves one of my least favorite justification crutches, likely the biggest reason for my half-star decrease.
Nonetheless, Death Without Company remains well worth reading; a library summons prevented me from the re-read I would have liked. I highly recommend it to fans of Nevada Barr and Colin Cotterill, as well as anyone who wants an enjoyable mystery.