Ask any baseball fan and he or she will tell you: Some teams are just built to play "small ball." They don't have the hitters to go long on a regular basis against teams like the New York Yankees. So they use strategies like ball placement, base running and defense to beat their opponents.
So it is with Upton, Wyoming-based author Craig Johnson.
In his last book, "A Serpent's Tooth," Johnson chose to go out of character. He went big, ending his book with a massive shootout. It didn't work. It simply is not what he does best.
Well, rejoice, Johnson fans. The writer has returned to his game -- focusing on his usual cast of characters, storytelling and a small-town setting -- and he has hit a home run with his new book, "Any Other Name," (Penguin Group, $26.95, 319 pages).
Indeed, this may be Johnson's best Longmire mystery yet in terms of its ability to grab and keep the reader locked in. "Hell Is Empty" (2011) certainly is his most superior work in terms of its literary merit. But "Any Other Name" is a roller-coaster ride of a thriller. You probably shouldn't start reading the last third of the book before bedtime: You will be up at 3 a.m. It is that compelling.
"Any Other Name" has Johnson's small-town sheriff, Walt Longmire, chasing after a mystery, this time in northeastern Wyoming rather than his usual Absaroka County: Why did a longtime detective, Gerald Holman, kill himself? Or did he?
Walt's old boss, Lucian Connelly, wants the question answered, for reasons other than just a longtime professional relationship. But at the opening, it's enough for Walt to know that Holman had come out of retirement to work cold cases for the Campbell County Sheriff's Department. He then is found dead in a motel room east of Gillette with not one, but two bullet holes in his head.
Oh, and Walt is facing a deadline: His daughter, Cady, finally is about to give birth to Walt's first grandchild and she wants him by her side in Philadelphia, damn it.
The story rolls forward as Walt discovers what he thinks Holman also knew: Three of the cold cases -- all missing women -- appear to be tied together. Just what that really is all about will be up to the reader to find out.
As with all of Johnson's books, "Any Other Name" is not really about the mystery but the people who inhabit the work. This is where the author truly excels: He creates finely drawn characters who you could bump into in any small town in Wyoming.
All the familiar names -- the ones that make the Longmire series so compelling -- are here. It is particularly comforting that Victoria Moretti, Walt's spitfire deputy and love interest, is still around and romancing the sheriff. Where that was headed was unclear at the end of "Serpent's Tooth." Moretti had been hit by a knife thrown by bad guy Tomas Bidarte, and she sustained a loss that left fans wondering where the relationship with Walt was headed. Bidarte, by the way, has not left their lives, despite taking several bullets from Walt's gun.
Along the way, the reader of "Any Other Name" gets to enjoy some new faces as well. There is a tough cop from New Mexico, Richard Harvey; post office manager Dave Rowan; rookie patrolman Travis Bradley; the owner at the local strip club, Tommi Sandburg; and Holman's daughter, Connie, a former meth addict who became a teacher, who plays a pivotal role in the tale.
Walt also finds himself out in the snow again; this has become an important theme in Johnson's series. This time, Walt is with friend Henry Standing Bear amidst a herd of buffalo in the Black Hills. This leads to another turn on Longmire's continuing spiritual journey. It's not every protagonist in mystery fiction who sees white bison and spends time talking with spirits.
But the centerpiece of this book is not Walt's solving of the mystery. Fans know he is going to do that with his usual wit and skill -- and with Johnson's usual plot twist.
No, the grabber here is the thrill ride that consumes the story's final act: It is as good a bit of adventure fiction as you will find. Without giving too much away, it concerns Walt's heroic effort to save a woman's life. It involves a train car, a deadly load of coal, an historic revolver and a clock -- a race against time. If it doesn't leave you breathless, stop by and I'll buy you a cup of coffee.
All in all, it is a pleasure to see Johnson returning to what he does best. He doesn't need to swing for the fences to get the job done. Rather, by keeping it small, he has created a dynamic series and, in this case, a winner of a book.
If you go
Craig Johnson's latest in his Longmire mystery series, "Any Other Name," will hit the bookstores on Tuesday. For now, no Cheyenne stops are planned in the Wyoming author's coming book tour, but he will be in the Front Range next month:
June 1, 3 p.m. Tattered Cover Book Store, 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver
June 2, 6:30 p.m. - Old Town Library at the Library Park Stage, 201 Peterson St., Fort Collins, Colorado. Bring a picnic and a blanket.
Published on: Monday, May 12, 2014 - 12:45:05 pm MDT