Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Tom Fortune of Hardin (left) shakes hands with Craig Johnson, writer of the Walt Longmire mystery novels, during a book signing late Sunday afternoon at the Big Horn County Library.Author Craig Johnson relates tales of writing his novels and casting as executive producer for the “Longmire” television series to the library audience.

‘I know who did it’

Internationally-known writer of Walt Longmire mystery series visits Hardin
It was Craig Johnson’s favorite part of the day – early morning at his ranch in the 25-person unincorporated town of Ucross, Wyo. A fresh cup of coffee in hand, he stepped out onto his front porch to watch the sun crest over the horizon. Then, he heard “something strange, something we don’t hear very often in Ucross”: sirens.
 
Near the point where his ranch connected with the Johnson County road to the south, he saw a squad car barreling down the path “at about 90 miles an hour,” he said, before it fishtailed and slid to a stop in front of his house. The door “flew open” and former Johnson County Sheriff Larry Kirkpatrick stepped out.
 
“I know who did it,” he remembers Kirkpatrick saying. “I’m a trained professional and I know who did it.”
 
More than a decade later, laughter erupted from an audience of about 50 people at the Big Horn County Library in Hardin as Johnson relayed the story on Sunday afternoon. Public Services Librarian Ray Dale had been in contact with him for a year before Johnson, an internationally-acclaimed novelist, could schedule a visit. 
 
Now the author of 13 books, two novellas and a collection of short stories, Johnson is known for creating the character of Sheriff Walt Longmire, who solves crimes and presides over the fictional Absaroka County, Wyo. 
 
“[Longmire is] bigger than life, but – at the same time – he’s a real person,” said Dale, an admitted fan of the novels. “He’s not the hero who beats the crap out of everyone. He gets pushed around a little from time to time, too. He’s a little vulnerable but, at the same time, he’s been through a lot and doesn’t buckle under.”
 
“The moral structure of [the novels] are quite a bit the same as it used to be,” added Tom Fortune of Hardin, who “cowboyed” in Sweetwater County, Wyo. during the mid-1950s. He read all the novels and enjoyed intellectual bent, he added, as Johnson has a different “thinking box” than him. “People were more honorable at that time – honor doesn’t seem to be anything that’s on top of things right now, honor and honesty.”
 
Kirkpatrick filled Johnson in on the particulars of small-town sheriff work, including the need to occasionally remove livestock from the freeway (a Code 10-54 on the scanner). He also continued to pursue the identity of a fictional killer as Johnson wrote his debut novel – 2004’s The Cold Dish – continuing his efforts from the first chapter to the last.
 
“I said, ‘Larry, you can’t guess after every chapter,’” Johnson said, “and he goes, ‘To hell I can’t, it’s my county. I can guess as many times as I want.’”
 
Oftentimes, in addition to the Wyoming setting, Johnson’s stories also incorporate elements from in and around Big Horn County, Mont. 
 
For example, Longmire’s friend Henry Standing Bear is of Northern Cheyenne descent – as is Marcus RedThunder Sr. of Hardin, Johnson’s real-life friend upon whom the character is based. As a small Big Horn County touch, Standing Bear wears “his signature Fort Smith Big Lip Carp Tournament” ball cap while he assists Longmire on cases with understated humor and a knowledge of the Cheyenne people.
 
Johnson intended The Cold Dish to be a standalone piece, but decided to continue the tales from Absaroka County. His stories have – at present – been translated into 14 languages, appeared on The New Times Best Seller list and won numerous awards both in and outside the U.S.
 
When Johnson became executive producer of the “Longmire” series on A&E in 2012 – now on Netflix – his character also may have indirectly caused a shortage in the production of Rainier Beer, due to the titular sheriff drinking the product. Two weeks after the series began, Johnson himself found it difficult to acquire Rainier Beer from Wyoming librarians, who years earlier had agreed to pay him with a six-pack of the product (“cans preferred”) for his talks.
 
“We are out of beer,” he said, quoting a representative from the Rainier Brewing Company. “We have been brewing this stuff since Prohibition, and we have had a spike in sales unlike anything we’ve ever had before, and we have no idea what’s going on.”
 
After an illuminating conversation, Johnson remembered the representative saying, “Don’t worry, because we’re in full production, so it will be back out on the shelves in four days.” According to Johnson, this gave him “an indication of how long it takes to make Rainier Beer.”
 
Johnson lives a charmed life, in his estimation, which blends the physical side of ranching with the intellectual side of writing. He was unable to think of a downside to the job.
 
“Whenever I’m on the ranch and I’m working, and I come back into the house, and I’m all covered with mud and blood and sweat, and I’m angry,” he said, “my wife will look at me and say, ‘Go take a shower and go write, and it will all be better.’”
 
According to Fortune, the most recent Longmire story – September 2017’s The Western Star – kept the culprit hidden to the point “he had no idea who it was going to be.” Years previous, Sheriff Kirkpatrick likely felt something similar.
 
“He guessed after every single chapter,” Johnson said, “and he never got it right.”
 
Though he wouldn’t reveal the plot, Johnson’s 14th book is set to be titled Depth of Winter and is scheduled for release in September 2018.
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