★ ★ ★ 1/2
Mystery writers seem particularly drawn to serialize their creations. Perhaps because the genre allows a plot arc to be completed while building on a foundation of familiar characters and setting. However, as the series goes on the challenge becomes bringing a sense of freshness while allowing the familiar to cradle the reader in comfort. As the Crow Flies manages to capture the spirit of the Longmire tradition: the desolate Western setting, the trials of family, the work of law enforcement, and cultural aspects of the West. In this installment, Sheriff Walt Longmire is tasked with finalizing details of his daughter’s wedding. A problem in venue sends him and best friend Henry Standing Bear out to some picturesque cliffs, where he and Henry witness a woman falling to her death.
Johnson’s sense of place continues to be evocative, and this time action nicely clicks along with a variety of leads to pursue and incidents that spur Walt’s continued involvement in the case. As the death takes place on tribal lands, the reader is given a tour through some of the areas outsiders rarely see, except perhaps the local casino. I thought Johnson did a nice job of being value-neutral with the setting but still descriptive. Walt continues to play doting–but semi-absent–father and has an emotional moment or two where he has to accept emotional fallout from his choices. Pacing is steady and has a balance between the familial and the mystery plot lines.
While I enjoyed it, two concerns hung in my mind. One is that Walt is becoming even more of the awful trope known as the Great White Hope (with thanks to Claudia for verbalizing my concern). In prior books, Walt seems to narrate from bridge status, neither insider nor quite outsider to Native culture, but in this one he becomes much more of a cultural insider. I do think Johnson avoids a lot of the more stupid and common stereotypes of the U.S.’ Native population, whether desperately poor, meth-runners, or charity cases, but in this one he strays far into Mystic Connection With the Earth stereotype (for the love of all that is stereotypical, dear writers, will you stay away from the ‘blind-woman-who-sees-all” character?) In the last book, Walt had a spirit guide on his journey through the wilderness, so while this plot line could have been developed as part of an emotional/spiritual growth story, it does not quite achieve that prominence. I’d also allow for the possibility that Walt is rejecting the opportunity for spiritual growth, but Johnson doesn’t seem to be exactly headed there either. He just presents it, and while Walt will skim across his experiences in his thoughts, he won’t discuss or even inwardly acknowledge the opportunity. In Johnson’s favor, it should be noted that he does seem to achieve a nice balance in acknowledging differences in the Native cultural landscape and generally presenting characters as complicated and multi-dimensional.
So at the moment I draw up neutral, and will await where Johnson goes next.
My other concern is that this book is heavy with “instruction” to a new tribal police chief, Lolo Long who happens to be a woman and a war veteran. Walt flat out tells her she is wrong for the job, which is probably one of the harshest things I have heard Walt say in six books. I couldn’t tell if he meant to kick her ass into gear, but she responds to the tough love by looking to him for advice. While in theory finding mentors in your field is a great idea, particularly ones that have an extensive network and can assist in opportunities to develop your own relationships, it’s a little weird that Walt half-heartedly takes on the role when he is an outsider in many ways. To his credit, Walt seems sincere in his advice and wish for her success. On the negative side, the fact that Walt considers it appropriate to give her advice seems wrong in so many levels. First, Chief Long clearly has PTSD, so a really thoughtful mentor and fellow war vet should address it. Second, Walt is a physically dominating person–he frequently references college football and we know he’s over six feet tall with equal mass. And that, my friends, is something I know a great deal about, as the daughter of an equally large male police officer. Being a male, large, white and an officer allows for implicit force and explicit authority, and whether Walt acknowledges it or not, he brings that to every interaction. Although Chief Long is described as statuesque or something, she is still female and Native so the ‘authority’ she brings to interactions stems from different sources. Techniques that work for Walt are not going to work for her, although the advice to de-escalate situations is well-given and deserved. It’s well-known in the law enforcement field that female officers tend to be much better at managing confrontation so it resolves in a more peaceful manner. There’s a variety of factors that play into that dynamic, and it just strikes me as odd that Walt doesn’t acknowledge any of them.
Ultimately, I enjoyed reading As the Crow Flies, but it did require a degree of willful suspension and concentrating on following the story. It does deliver nicely on series premise and there’s a satisfying emotional core to the book that makes it a pleasant palate cleanser. It was a great way to lull my reading brain before tackling more gripping reads.