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MYSTERIES OF YOUTH AND MURDER: CRAIG JOHNSON'S FIRST FROST




First Frost is the twentieth novel in Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series. By using a tried and true practice of two timelines, he takes a fresh look at the life of the Northern Wyoming sheriff before he even carried a badge. He weaves past and present together with an unpretentious style.


Walt's girlfriend and undersheriff Vic finds a surfboard with a dent when they are making space in his cabin. It takes him back to 1964 and his last day in California as a recent college grad, surfing Malibu with buddy, Henry Standing Bear. When they see a sinking skiff, they try to rescue those on board. They are unable to help, but discover it was used to smuggle drugs. Even though they tell the sheriff's department they'll stay for any further questioning, the two hit the road next day. Both are to be inducted into the Marines, Henry at Tigerland, Walt in Paris Island, and have planned a road trip.


As Walt spends the next day, dealing with a preliminary hearing about the shooting that occurred in the last book, The Longmire Defense, he talks about what happened on the first leg of their trip in Arizona. Swerving to miss a coyote in the road, he slammed the car into a ditch an bent the tie rod. They walk into the whistle-stop Bone Valley and the garage owner greats them and tells the to get out of town. Convincing the man they can't leave until their car is fixed, they are stuck in the creepy burg where they are threatened by most of the citizens. The tension is tied to the a judge who owns most of the town and a Japanese internment camp that operated nearby during world War Two. If that wasn't enough, the drug runners from Malibu show up. In the current world, the hearing gets trickier than expected.


The book serves as a testament to the experience of craft Craig has developed over the years. Each successive book, particularly the most recent ones, have have deeper understanding of genre and its use. I know the John Sturges film Bad Day At Black Rock is a favorite of his and he takes that template of a stranger uncovering the dark secret of a small town as many in it plan to kill him and expands on it. He ratchets up the dread with the town closing in on Walt and Henry as they get each piece of the puzzle. Those pieces are perfectly timed and placed to both lead and misdirect the reader. I've never been more involved in guessing the outcome of a Longmire plot than in First Frost. This sense of pacing and suspense also develops in the storyline in the present when politics and a the family of one of the shooters play a part in the hearing. He even leads us into what appears to be the setup for the next book.


A great example of Craig's craft occurs when young Walt meets up with the drug smuggler. The gangster asks him to look in the trunk of his car. When Walt does, the book holds back on what he sees and his emotional reaction is. He lets it play out in the conversation between the two men, drawing us in as we get a physical and emotional understanding that becomes clearer with each line.


However, he uses this acquired knowledge and skill to do more than refine the genre conventions. He plays off of them, knowing what we expect and turning it on it's head. In l connecting the western and mystery, he creates a stage for other genres. In First Frost, he adds touches of horror, mainly through the Walt and Henry being cut off from the rest of society and a ghostlike woman who runs around Bone Valley in a Japanese opera mask. It creates the feeling that our heroes and ourselves are never on completely solid footing.


We also get the author's understanding of Walt and Henry in how he can believably capture their much younger selves. He avoids "gee whiz" dialogue and and stupid actions to portray their youth. Walt has the sense of of justice and loyalty, but it's with a more absolutism instead of the more humanistic view he has grown into. He is more impulsive and for both better and worse quicker to react. Henry comes off less assured. Volunteering to fight in a war he doesn't believe in, has him understanding that he holds contradiction, yet struggling to come to terms od why he has them. Craig views these men right before they embark on a choice that will mold who they are for the rest of their lives.


First Frost puts you in the care of an experienced hand who has picked some tricks along the way. It provides a tight suspenseful yarn as it examines the complexities of the human heart and behavior it influences. We down go far down the road with Walt and Henry on thier 64' trip. Hopefully, Craig Johnson has a ideas for a couple more stops along the way.


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