“Dead men don’t tell tales, but I always expect them to pop up and tell me it had all been a big joke. In thirty years of law enforcement, I had been deeply disappointed” – The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

February 20, 2010 at 3:28 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

There’s some great writing in Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish. Characters are convincingly drawn, and the landscape of northern Wyoming is vividly evoked. But for this reader, the action moved just a tad too slowly – loped, rather than raced.

That said, I developed a genuine affection for Walt Longmire, Sheriff of Absaroka County. His personality contains a pleasing mixture of competence, courage and self-deprecation. He is, in other words, a nice guy to spend time with.

About The Cold Dish, reviewer Dan O’Brien enthuses, “Finally, a real western detective.” Now this is true, as far as it goes. But in addition to being a nice guy and real Western detective, Walt Longmire is some kind of secret scholar. References to Sherlock Holmes are one thing – but Balzac, Aristotle and Milton? This particular mystery is solved by a visit to the author’s website. Turns out that Craig Johnson, that epitome of country folksiness, has a PhD in play writing.  Not only that  – before staking a claim to the rural good life of Wyoming,  he was an officer in the NYPD.

(Ah, the temptation to show off one’s hard-won erudition. Some of us know it only too well!)

Having complained about this novel’s slow pace, I have to admit that I really appreciated some of Johnson/Longmire’s ruminative digressions. Here’s one I particularly liked:

‘Scientists say there is a noise that snowflakes make when they land on water, like the wail of a coyote; the sound reaches a climax and then fades away, all in about one ten-thousandth of a second. They noticed it when they were using sonar to track migrating salmon in Alaska. The snowflakes made so much noise that it masked the signals of the fish, and the experiment had to be aborted. The flake floats on the water, and there is little sound below; but as soon as it starts to melt, water is sucked up by capillary action. They figure that air bubbles are released from the snowflake or are  trapped by  the rising water. Each of these  bubbles vibrate as it struggles to reach equilibrium with its surroundings and sends out sound waves, a cry so small and  so high that it’s undetectable by the human ear.

Unsurprisingly, Walt draws an analogy between this fascinating natural phenomenon and his own situation: “It seemed that an awful lot of the voices in my life were so small and high as to be undetectable by the human ear.”

The Cold Dish also contains some rich Native American lore. Walt knows many members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe; their reservation is within his purview.  One of his closest friends his Henry Standing Bear. In this scene, Walt trudges through a raging snowstorm in order to get help for the wounded Henry:

‘I felt as though the Old Cheyenne were challenging me for my friend, were attempting to take him back with them to the Camp of the Dead. It was a good, spirited challenge, one that pulled at my heartstrings,  but one that I would not allow. I looked at their shadows as they walked along with me. Darting between the trees with closed-mouth smiles on their faces, nodding to me when I caught their eyes, they carried their coup sticks but kept them far out of my reach. Their steps were steady, like my own, and it was only after a while that I became aware that they were matching them precisely. I smiles back in the friendly assurance that their company was  appreciated but their mission was not. They could see it as a smile or they could see it as a showing of teeth. It didn’t matter; I would pass this way again very soon, and they were welcome to join me, but they should not get in my way. They were dressed in their summer loincloths with only low moccasins on their  feet, but  the cold didn’t seem t affect them any more than it was affecting me. One of them nodded in a knowing fashion and dipped his shoulders sideways to slip between the close-knit lodgepole pines only to disappear on the other side.

Walt’s assertion that he is unaffected by the harsh weather conditions is not quite accurate; he is so severely affected that he is hallucinating.But he is possessed of endurance and  determination in equal amounts.

(These Wyoming folk know a thing or two about snow. And so do we, here in the Free State!)

It’s been a while since I read The Cold Dish, so I’m not going to attempt too detailed a recapitulation of the plot. Young Cody Pritchard is found dead, and at first, his death is thought to be the result of a hunting mishap. Two years prior, Pritchard and several of his cronies had been convicted of raping a young Cheyenne woman. All received suspended sentences; this outcome caused plenty of bad feeling in the community. Sure enough, a closer look at  the evidence in the Pritchard case indicates murder. Is someone out for revenge?

From here, the plot gains in complexity – too much so, in my opinion. I had trouble keeping track of the multiplicity of characters and their real or imagined motives. Also the conclusion, about which I will say  the minimum, disappointed me. I felt that Johnson made use of trope that has become standard issue in many works of contemporary crime fiction.

And yet, and yet…there’s so much good material in this novel that even with the aforementioned caveats, I give it a thumbs up. The lengthy passage above describing Walt’s ordeal by blizzard reminded me of William Kent Krueger’s vivid description of the windigo in Thunder Bay. Both Johnson and Krueger are authors to turn to for those (like myself) who still miss the late great Tony Hillerman.

Do I plan to read another entry in this series? Yes – but not just now.

Here, Walt Longmire waxes irreverent, in a gentle manner:

‘I sometimes forgot how spiritual Henry was. I had been raised as a Methodist where the highest sacrament was the bake sale.

This video of Craig Johnson speaking at last year’s National Book Festival in Washington DC will give you a clear idea whence Walt Longmire’s sense of humor emanates:


Last year, this profile of Craig Johnson appeared in The New York Times. It seems he’s built himself one heck of a house out there in Ucross, Wyoming, pop. 25.


  1. Kay said,

    This is one of my favorite mystery series. And, yet, I agree with what you said above. It took a while to grow on me. Then I was hooked. We read The Cold Dish in my mystery book club and surprisingly, the person who loved it most was a lady who love P.D. James and English police procedurals. She felt that it was a literary novel as well as a crime story. New one coming out this year, Junkyard Dogs.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Thanks for the comment, Kay. I actually agree – it was quite literary, in the best sense!

  2. Frances said,

    I enjoyed the book after I became accustomed to Walt’s witty way of speaking or thinking to himself.

    After hearing Craig speak on the U Tube clip you provided I would be curious enough to seek out his books just to see what a funny and erudite guy would write.
    He does have a great sensitivity to the human condition. I wondered why he wrote his deputy as a female with smarts and a dirty mouth. I am also glad there is dog in the story.
    I like dogs in stories. Just so you know, as I sat here watching Craig speak I would break out into peals of laughter. I like the man. After seeing the pics in the NY Times I wonder if Craig ever takes his hat off??!! 🙂 He can build a house and he can sure tell a story.

  3. Kay W said,

    I read Cold DIsh a few years ago and loved it. The pace didn’t bother me a whit — maybe it’s a side effect of being retired.

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Larsson The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson The Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Hit Parade and Hit […]

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