I’ve been a fan of Craig Johnson ever since I read the first Walt Longmire mystery, The Cold Dish (2005). I called it, “A thoughtful page-turner, wry and sober in good measure, that proves there’s more to Wyoming crime fiction than just C. J. Box.” (His next one, Hell Is Empty, comes out next month.) And Johnson is just as good a storyteller in person as he is on the page, as the audiences of his many public appearances can attest. His Wyoming sheriff may just become a regular on the small screen, too: they’re shooting a pilot for the TV show Longmire. I asked Johnson to tell us about his favorite crime-fiction read of the past year and turned in a rave review of Death Along the Spirit Road, by By C. M. Wendleboe.
Bodies are bad news on the Rez, and bodies with war clubs stuck in them are even worse. Enter Manny Tanno, FBI agent and former resident on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Things haven’t changed much since Manny was a kid with unemployment, alcoholism, domestic violence, and an old antagonist, Leon ‘Lumpy’ Looks Twice, who’s now chief of the tribal police. Manny is a haunted man in numerous ways, not only by the Red Cloud visions of the dead man that complicate his dreams, but also the uneasy restlessness that overtakes all of us when we return to our old stomping grounds.
The ex-academy instructor is an interesting addition to the cavalcade of mystery protagonists that populate the western landscape of crime fiction these days. Manny’s a man on a mission, and the Oglala Sioux Indian’s journey has become cyclical. On the trail of a cold-blooded killer, the tracks are muddied by past relationships, political involvements with the American Indian Movement (sometimes referred to by Manny as Assholes in Moccasins) and things only become worse when Manny’s own brother Rueben becomes a prime suspect.
It would be easy to focus on the characters of Wendelboe’s Death Along the Spirit Road, but that might rob you of the scenery. Curt paints us a picture of a place he knows well, a place he policed as a sheriff’s deputy and patrolman in those lonely little towns that surround the magnificent beauty of the high plains. Like all good artists, Wendelboe doesn’t paint by the numbers but instead gives us the Rez in all its pageantry, both good and bad. In the land of the Wounded Knee Massacre, don’t look for postcard-perfect vistas, but rather the blown-out, burned windows of abandoned track houses, rusting hulks of junk cars, and the vacant eyes of a people that carried a spiritual connection to a continent before we whites arrived.
Almost as interesting to me is the pacing of the novel, which is distinctly native, something I haven’t read since the departure of the old master, Tony Hillerman. There’s a cadence to Curt’s work that is truly surprising.
The Wounded Knee Memorial is a makeshift sort of structure on the Pine Ridge Reservation with white painted concrete blocks, red brick, and arching metalwork that invites you to enter, to dream, to have visions, and to commune with ghosts. Death Along the Spirit Road is like that too; don’t misplace your invitation.
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