No pink cover, just a dark story. Enjoy!

November 17, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson (2005) French title: Little Bird. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

When The Cold Dish opens, it’s fall in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. The sheriff Walt Longmire is watching geese through his office’s windows when his assistant Ruby comes in and announces that Bob Barnes is on line one, reporting a dead body. It’s so unusual that Longmire doesn’t believe he has an actual stiff to take care of.

She leaned against the doorjamb and went to shorthand, “Bob Barnes, dead body, line one.”

I looked at the blinking red light on my desk and wondered vaguely if there was a way I could get out of this. “Did he sound drunk?”

“I am not aware that I’ve ever heard him sound sober”

Johnson_Little_BirdSo Longmire is convinced he’ll go all the way to the scene to discover some dead sheep. But what he finds there is the awfully damaged body of Cody Pritchard. Killed by a rifle. It doesn’t seem like an accident. Longmire knows Cody as he was involved in a previous case, the collective rape of a Native American teenager, Melissa Little Bird. He was the main instigator of the crime and did it with three friends, George and Jacob Esper and Bryan Keller. The court condemned them to light charges compared to the crime and the Cheyenne community won’t mourn him.

Is Cody’s death a murder or a hunting accident? If it is a murder, does it have anything to do with Melissa Little Bird’s rape?

The Cold Dish is the first installment of the Longmire series. It sets the décor, the characters and made me want to spend more time in their company. The sheriff’s staff is composed of four people. Deputy Ferg, who works part-time because of his passion for fishing, Ruby, the office’s assistant I mentioned before, another deputy that nobody likes and Vic, the latest deputy on the team. She comes from the East coast and landed in Wyoming when she followed her husband who got a job there.

Vic was a career patrol person from an extended family of patrol people back in South Philadelphia. Her father was a cop, her uncles were cops, and her brothers were cops. The problem was that her husband was not a cop. He was a field engineer for Consolidated Coal and had gotten transferred to Wyoming to work at a mine about halfway between here and Montana border. When he accepted the position a little less than two years ago, she gave it all up and came out with him. She listened to the wind, played housewife for about two weeks, and then came into the office to apply for a job.

She’s used to a lot more action than what she encounters in Wyoming and will be valuable on the case.

Walt Longmire is over fifty, not looking for any excitement in his job. He wants to be re-elected to quietly hand over the position to Vic. He’s engaging, he reminded me of Adamsberg, Fred Vargas’s Commissaire or Gamache, Louise Penny’s Chef de la Sûreté. Longmire has been lonely and depressed since his wife Martha died four years ago. His daughter is a lawyer who lives far away and he’s always waiting for her to call. Not so long before Martha’s death, they had sold their house to settle out of town. So now, he lives in an unfinished house with basic comfort, no decoration and he doesn’t care, although he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.

I don’t know what the exact physical dynamics are that cause a shower curtain to attach itself to your body when you turn on the water but, since my shower was surrounded on all sides by curtains, I turned on the water and became a vinyl, vacuum-sealed sheriff burrito.

He drinks a bit too much, he’s terribly out of shape and has been moping around for too long according to his best friend Henry Standing Bear. Henry has decided to take the matter into his own hands, hiring guys to improve the house, showing up at ungodly hours to drag Walt to running. Longmire’s struggles and his friendship with Henry give substance to the novel. They make quite a pair. Craig Johnson keeps it nuanced so it sounds real. Longmire has a wry sense of humor and he’s fond of literature, and sometimes mixes the two, like here when he reads the local newspaper:

I took a sip of y coffee, sat the folder on the counter, and began reading the newspaper. “In the cold, gray dawn of September the twenty-eighth…” Dickens. “…The sippery bank where the life of Cody Pritchard came to an ignominious end…”Faulkner. “Questioning society with the simple query, why?” Steinbeck. “Dead”. Hemingway.

The Cold Dish has all the ingredients of a great read and I loved the witty tone of Longmire’s voice. He’s touching, the plot is catchy, it’s informative about Cheyenne customs, the history of Wyoming and life in this State. The descriptions of the landscape and the community make you want to go there.

It was one of those beautiful, high-plains days, where the sky just blinks blue at the earth and you have to remind yourself to take it in. The second cuttings were all up and tarped, and the perfectly round shadows of bales looked surreal stretching across the disc-turned fields toward Clear Creek like stubble fields at harvest home. I didn’t pass a single car on the way into Durant. It was a little before eight when I got to the office, and Ruby already had five Post-its plastered on the doorjamb of my office. I spotted them when I came through the front door. “It’s a five Post-it day already?”

Ruby makes sure that Longmire stays in line, does his job and takes care of any task she communicates through her Post-its. There’s not much activity for the sheriff, so five Post-its early in the morning is big news. The volume of activity at the sheriff’s office is so low and mundane that everything is treated with minimum fuss and minimum budget too. The county’s jail has only two cells and the prisoners are catered with take-away food from the local eatery. It gives you a feel of small town life in Wyoming where the towns have few inhabitants, where everybody knows everything about everybody. There’s only one street in Durant:

“Vic’s down the street, directing traffic.”

“We’ve only got one street. What’s she doing that for?”

“Electricals for the Christmas decorations.”

“It’s not even Thanksgiving.”

“It’s a city council thing.”

rue ppale

It’s a tight-knit community and this is a very atmospheric novel. Time is not a problem. Johnson’s writing reflects that: he takes time to describe characters, to show us the landscape, to tell us about customs, to dig into the characters’ psyche. Don’t expect a fast paced novel, because it’s not. There’s a lot of action but not in the frenzied and noisy action-movie way. Johnson is obviously fond of Wyoming, where he lives himself. His love for the place seeps through his writing and it makes you want to visit Absaroka County and see it for yourself.

wyoming landscape

What’s not to like?

Craig_JohnsonCraig Johnson won awards in France and he was at Quais du Polar in 2014, signing books, smiling, apparently happy to be there. He looks the part of the Wyoming writer, at least in the mind of a European. I have a copy in French and Sophie Aslanides’s translation is brilliant. I had the opportunity to compare passages to the original and it’s flawless. It sounds American only it’s in French. Johnson’s books are published by the excellent publisher of American literature, Gallmeister. The owner, Olivier Gallmeister, should change his name into Gemmaster. Because that’s what he is.

PS: The Cold Dish was not on my #TBR20 but I read it as soon as I received it. So technically, I didn’t cheat. Thanks a lot to my sister-in-law who gave me this and sent me most of the photos included in this post.

PPS: A last quote, for the road.

There were clouds at the mountains, and the snow pack reflected the sour-lemon sun into one of the most beautiful and perverse sunsets I had ever seen. The clouds were dappled like the hindquarters of an Appaloosa colt, and the beauty kicked just as hard. The head wind rattled the bare limbs of the cottonwoods as the longer branches swayed, and the remnants of grass and sage shuddered close to the ground. The buffeting of the wind against the truck reminded me that I had lost both of my jackets.

  1. November 17, 2015 at 12:32 am

    I’ve had this book a year or two but haven’t gotten around to reading it. I got it because of the tv series which was excellent. I’m glad it still sounds American in the French because so much is about the characters themselves in the tv program. If I remember correctly Johnson was involved in the production which is always good.

    Like

    • November 17, 2015 at 7:58 am

      I have good news for you: I’ve heard the book is better than the series. And since you liked the series, you’re in for a treat.
      And yes, Craig Johnson was involved in the production of the series.

      Liked by 1 person

      • November 18, 2015 at 12:10 am

        Wow! I’m moving it up in the tbr pile now. Thanks, Emma.

        Like

  2. November 17, 2015 at 1:12 am

    How many books are in the series?

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  3. November 17, 2015 at 7:57 am

    I will certainly look out for these books …..sounds like the sort of thing my husband would enjoy and Xmas is coming !

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    • November 17, 2015 at 7:59 am

      It’s very enjoyable. You want more when you’ve read one, like with Louise Penny’s books.

      Like

  4. November 17, 2015 at 8:23 am

    I read one of the Longmire books a while back but haven’t read any since – I should remedy that – I love your witty quotes.

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    • November 17, 2015 at 8:33 am

      I really enjoyed the style, the humor, Longmire’s thoughts and all. I wonder how the series ages.

      Like

  5. November 17, 2015 at 5:13 pm

    12 books. Still, it does sound very good and the quotes are strong. Also, I’ve been to Wyoming a few times, which can’t hurt. A definite maybe, and thanks Emma for the review. I hope you try a few more of them.

    Like

    • November 17, 2015 at 11:42 pm

      If you’ve been to Wyoming several times, I’m sure you’ll like it, at least for the atmosphere and the landscapes.

      I’m going to put the second one on my Christmas wish list.

      Like

  6. November 17, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    It sounds like a strong start to the series. I really like the quotes too, especially the ones on the landscape. They give a real sense of the place, always important in this type of story.

    Like

    • November 17, 2015 at 11:45 pm

      It’s a very good start. I wonder how it will hold in the next books.

      His style is an excellent mix of humour, descriptions of places and introspection. I think you’d like it.

      Like

  7. November 21, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    If you want to be left alone, Wyoming is definitely the place to go.

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  8. November 22, 2015 at 9:37 am

    Searching for new inspiration to blog and I came across this post. Just want to tell you it is beautifully expressed.

    Like

  1. December 29, 2015 at 10:17 pm
  2. December 29, 2015 at 11:29 pm
  3. February 20, 2016 at 11:21 pm
  4. March 12, 2016 at 4:10 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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