LAND OF WOLVES by Craig Johnson (Viking, 336 pp., $28).
Walt Longmire is tired. He wouldn’t admit it, mind you — the famously laconic sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, plays his cards close to his vest, and he sure as hell isn’t the type to complain. Still, his friends and co-workers have noticed a change: as one of them asks the flinty lawman, “You’ve been shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, run over and generally abused in just about every way possible, and it’s only now that it’s gotten to you?”
Luckily for fans of novelist Craig Johnson’s series of books featuring Longmire — which were adapted into a successful TV show that wrapped in 2017 — the sheriff has no intention of handing over his star. “Land of Wolves,” the 15th novel in Johnson’s series, finds the gruff cop investigating the mysterious death of a shepherd while confronting his own mortality. It’s a taut, engrossing thriller from one of the most exciting voices in the genre.
“Land of Wolves” opens with Longmire and his undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, joining a forest ranger and county brand inspector to investigate a rather low-stakes murder: a sheep, mauled to death in a mountain valley. “There’s always another dead sheep,” Moretti complains. “It’s what sheep do — they die.” They’re quick to blame a lone wolf (literally, a wolf, named 777M) for the death, but can’t blame the canine for what Longmire quickly discovers — the corpse of a shepherd, hanging from a tree.
Longmire’s investigation is met with several roadblocks along the way. First off, he’s hobbled by injuries he sustained in Mexico while rescuing his daughter from a drug lord. He also finds himself trying, in vain, to reassure panicked townspeople who are convinced a pack of wolves is on the loose with a taste for human blood. Then there’s Keasik Cheechoo, a Native American woman who’s set on protecting 777M from hunters — and who had a mysterious relationship with the dead shepherd.
As with all of the Longmire books, Johnson packs “Land of Wolves” with a memorable supporting cast, including the foul-mouthed Moretti — who's also Longmire’s sometimes lover — as well as Abe Extepare, the wealthy Basque rancher who had employed the late shepherd. Johnson is careful to give all his characters their own personalities and motivations; none exists just to move the narrative along.
But as usual, it’s Longmire who steals the show. Johnson has an obvious and abiding love for his cranky hero, and “Land of Wolves” explores his human side beautifully. In one unexpectedly touching storyline, Longmire reluctantly agrees to start using a computer to make his dispatcher’s life easier — but only after he learns that he can use email to receive pictures of his daughter, with whom he has a difficult relationship.
It’s moving, as well, to see the tough sheriff dealing with aging and nursing the wounds he received in Mexico. “Maybe that was the way of things; sometimes you paid a price and never get to make another deposit into your account and eventually you are overdrawn,” he reflects. “Lately, I’d been feeling like I was standing at the counter, the cashier always closing the window in my face.”
It’s impressive that Johnson can take such a deep dive into Longmire’s character while still keeping the action coming. “Land of Wolves” is expertly paced, and Johnson isn’t an author who believes in wasting time — the plot takes several twists and turns until it culminates in a clever, shocking ending. It’s what readers have come to expect from Johnson and Longmire, but it’s not just more of the same. This is a smart, thoughtful mystery from an author who’s incapable of being boring, and who’s writing at the top of his game.