The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson

The Dark Horse

Read December 2014
Recommended for mystery fans
 ★    ★    ★

I’m a fan of Walt Longmire (first review here), an aging sheriff who represents many solid Western values, including independence, justice and connection to land and history. This is the 5th book in the series, and for me, the weakest. Luckily, I already have the next in the series available.

The story begins with a woman named Mary Barsad who is transferred to Walt’s tiny two-cell ‘jail’ as a means of making space–and revenue. And, just perhaps, the nieghboring sheriff’s sneaky way of arousing Walt’s interest in the case. Mary is accused of murdering her husband Wade shortly after he burned down their barn, including her beloved horses trapped inside. Everyone agrees Wade had it coming, but since Mary confessed and has since refused to talk, a guilty sentence seems unavoidable.

Some days you are in the mood, and some you aren’t, you know? Many of the ingredients I enjoyed previously are here: Walt’s taciturn character, the brave Dog, the scrabble of the small town life, the rich description of the desolate setting, and the subtle humor. The narrative structure, however, was an utter fail for me–although by other reviews, I wouldn’t say that’s a universal opinion. It starts “October 27, 11 a.m.” backtracks to “October 18: nine days earlier, morning,”  and then continues alternating forward through the two timelines until they dovetail. Apparently, I’m supposed to pay attention to the date in order to orient myself, but as a person that has a hard enough time remembering today’s date, it didn’t work. The result was a disjointed narrative that failed to achieve finesse or subtlety. Johnson used a similar technique in the prior book, Another Man’s Moccasins, but as those stories were separated by decades as well as countries, there was a better sense of time and place.

My second issue might very well be present in all the other books, but I fancy there was a bit more subtlety in the first few. This time, ingredients felt more boilerplate, and I have to wonder if the Hollywood influence was showing its tendrils. Animal abuse clearly identified The Bad Guy(s). There was the single mother with Big Aspirations and her Observant and Gutsy kid. There was the Undercover Friend, sneaking into town to provide back-up. The Old Ranch Hand served as lead dog on the case. There was also the strange moment of Walt’s generosity, which I realized later was a plot point to move the story to where it needed to go. It isn’t that his being generous didn’t make sense; it was the sheer unprecedented nature of it, in a county where most are living check to check. One of the solutions to a small mystery was telegraphed from the beginning, and there never was a good reason why Walt believed Anna was innocent.

Everything ended neatly tied into a bow and complication-free, and I found myself wondering if it was time for a break. But the first chapter of Junkyard Dog was included at the end. I sampled and quickly found myself chuckling, so there’s at least one more Walt story in my immediate future.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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