Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson

Hell is Empty

Read August 2015
Recommended for hard-core Longmire fans
 ★    ★   

Current self says, “Self, don’t read this book. Skip it and go to the next Walt Longmire.”
Past self says, “Self, it really bothers me to read a book out of order. What if I miss something? I have to complete them.”
Current self: “Stop being so obsessive compulsive.”
Past self: “I breathe, therefore I am.”
Current self: “Just for that, I’m gonna slap you into next week.”

Johnson tried, he really did. But there’s no mystery here, only Walt chasing down escaped prisoners in the middle of a Wyoming snowstorm in May. One of the prisoners–the important one–is a sociopath who has played a trump card of identifying the burial site of a murdered Native American boy. The prisoners escape shortly after Walt drops them off with the Feds, but Walt gets an inkling something ain’t right, and he’s on their tail in two shakes of a dog’s wet fur. So despite ice-slick roads, snowdrifts and fallen trees, Walt tracks them down to a lodge and then up into the Big Horn Mountain. Along the way he has a mystical journey, encounters lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) and Virgil White Buffalo.

Forget the plot. There isn’t much; it’s a straight-out Fugitive, with a mysticism bonus. I could forgive the wild coincidences and forced scenarios, but what I can’t forgive is Walt’s feeble reasons for the chase in the first place: “it’s my job.” No, it isn’t. Secondary reasons are flimsy (perhaps there are hostages, although they may be helping the fugitives) and flat-out stupid, particularly in light of prior life-and-death experiences when Walt was motivated by family and love. There’s not enough pretense to hang my hat on here.

And the storytelling–good heavens. It stumbles like a drunk cowboy trying to find the gents’ room, bouncing off patrons and doorways, spilling beer on the way. It vacillates from a whole lot of telling to forced metaphors about journeys to scenes that sound like Jack London on a bender. We learn the prisoners Longmire is transporting to the feds are awful people through dialogue lifted from Law & Order. Later there’s a dream sequence/flashback of the murdered child as he was being abducted (which show is that? Criminal Intent? I can’t keep all these devices straight). We have Deputy Santiago reading literature to broaden his mind or something, and while feeding the prisoners at the diner (!) he’s reading (!) Dante’s Inferno, (I find reading Dante less surprising then stopping at a restaurant to give handcuffed prisoners a meal and reading a book while one does it) which will conveniently be placed in the survival pack Santiago gives Walt. Then we have long landscape-gazing sequences where Walt climbs mountains, travels across icy lakes and gazes at beetle-destroyed pines. Foreshadowing isn’t so much heavy as it is crushing as it compares Walt’s journey to Dante’s and warns him about traitors, death and etc. (although I don’t believe sin was discussed).

The ending proved fairly unsatisfying, particularly as Walt persists in failing to discuss the spirits with best friend and Native warrior Henry, and as he persists in failing to acknowledge their influence on his life. I did like Virgil, his stories, and the mountain lion, so I guess that’s something. I was also glad for Hector the prisoner and his unselfconscious, sporadic phone calls providing a few laughs, sadly out of tone with the rest of the story.

My favorite paragraph in the book came after Virgil’s story about the Long Otters eating the young Thunderbirds and the Crow warrior who helped them:
“I nodded my head. ‘And the moral of the story is?’
He raised an eyebrow, and it was as if the dent in his forehead was looking to dig deeper. ‘What is it with you white people and morals? Maybe it’s just a story about what happened.'”

Now there was a story.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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2 Responses to Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson

  1. That is an awesome paragraph. In the next few weeks I have a Native American poetry collection to review. Not a culture I associate with poetry, but I have a fear I will read it in Lou Diamond Philips voice

    • thebookgator says:

      It was a fascinating story and the capstone was the idea that, “maybe its just a story.’ I imagine Native poetry would be fascinating. I’ll look forward to your review.

      And LDP is amazing, but I have not seen him in the Henry role. Instead I hear him as singing La Bamba.

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