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Craig Johnson makes crime pay

His detective novels are set in the rugged west and go deep into the characters' psyches. He says he's just giving the readers what they want.

July 20, 2008|Marc Weingarten | Special to The Times

Craig Johnson comes as advertised. Standing outside the Autry National Center on a boiling summer afternoon, the Wyoming-based crime novelist is decked out in a long-sleeve shirt made of heavy cotton, scuffed brown boots and a 10-gallon hat that provides shade, but not nearly enough. Spotting his interlocutor, Johnson sticks out his hand and delivers a booming "How ya doin'?!" This is the same Marlboro Man who squints at readers from the window of a beat-up junker truck on the jackets of his four novels, which includes the recently released "Another Man's Moccasins."

If you didn't know that Johnson was a rising star in the crime novel genre, you might mistake the guileless rancher for a hayseed agog in the big city. That is, until he goes inside the museum and wanders around its latest exhibit on presidents and cowboys. Suddenly, Johnson is dropping little nuggets of historical information like a docent. Passing a photo of Bat Masterson, Johnson, 47, reels off the titles of some of the dime novels that the famed western crime-fighter wrote. He's got a few choice factoids on Lyndon B. Johnson and Calvin Coolidge as well.

In "Another Man's Moccasins," Johnson flashes back and forth between present-day Wyoming -- the setting for all four of his novels -- and LBJ-era Vietnam, where Johnson's protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire, once served as a Marine investigator during the war. As Longmire, the star of all four Johnson novels, searches for the killer of a Vietnamese girl who's found on the highway in tiny Absaroka County, his past creeps up on him, back to memories of drug runners and prostitutes among the mud and pestilence of Tan Son Nhut and Tet. As Longmire unravels the present-day murder mystery, Johnson uses his parallel stories to ponder racism, redemption and the gravitational pull of the past.

Like the greatest crime novelists, Johnson is a student of human nature. Walt Longmire is strong but fallible, a man whose devil-may-care stoicism masks a heightened sensitivity to the horrors he's witnessed. "Longmire has seen some bad stuff in his life," said Johnson. "I suppose there's a good deal of myself in Walt, but he's unhappier than I am. He certainly believes in the goodness of humankind even as he deals with his share of, for lack of a better word, evil."

Unlike traditional genre novelists who obsess mainly over every hairpin plot turn, Johnson's books are also preoccupied with the mystery of his characters' psyches. "Another Man's Moccasins" delves deeper into Longmire's dark past than any previous Johnson novel. It's a long and sometimes unpleasant plunge into his unsettled conscience. "The thing about crime fiction is that readers have the same expectations that readers of literary fiction might have," he said. "They want strong character development, a story arc that makes sense, social commentary. They also want the whodunit part, but everything else is just as important."

'A strong voice'

Although Johnson's previous books ("The Cold Dish," "Kindness Goes Unpunished" and "Death Without Company") have sold well, especially among crime fiction fans on the West Coast, his publisher, Viking Penguin, hopes "Another Man's Moccasins" will be a breakout novel that will vault Johnson into the kind of mainstream success enjoyed by Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich. "There's a strong voice in Craig's writing, and that's what I always look for. He really understands character, and his books contain a lot of wit," said Kathryn Court, the president and publisher of Viking Penguin Books, who has edited all of Johnson's novels.

Those novels are grounded in the West. While walking through the Autry museum, he professes his affection for John Ford's films and tells a funny story about how Ford chose the Monument Valley region of Arizona as a film location (a small-time store owner with dollar signs in his eyes lured him there, apparently). Johnson views the West's lore as something to push against, as prime material to debunk in his books. "A vertical man in a horizontal landscape is a compelling image," he said. "But there are aspects of the West, such as our treatment of Native Americans, that cannot be ignored; at least, I can't ignore them."

The mores and rituals of Wyoming's local Crow and Cheyenne tribes play a prominent part in "Another Man's Moccasins." A prime suspect turns out to be a Crow Indian, and Longmire must rely on Henry Standing Bear, Walt Longmire's sharp-witted confidant and fellow Vietnam vet who appears in all the books, to navigate his way through the customs of the local tribes, particularly their complex caste systems and atavistic feuds. "I wanted to explore the notion of justice both on and off the Rez," said Johnson, who has befriended members of the Cheyenne tribe. "There's a lot of dramatic conflict in this region -- between opposing tribes, between tribes and the white population. It's a very multilayered region of the country."

Finding a new home

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