Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Next to Last Stand by Craig Johnson
Sheriff Walt Longmire has a past history with Charley Lee Stillwater. Charley Lee, a veteran of two wars, was a resident of the Veterans' Home of Wyoming, and the first black person Walt's daughter, Cady, met when she was five. Walt is reluctant to accept that Charley Lee's death came abruptly after he won Bingo, especially when he sees the state of the veteran's room. It's packed with paintings, art history books, and a shoebox with a million dollars cash. Just as intriguing as the shoebox is an old, strange canvas in a trunk.
Walt drags that canvas around with him, looking for the story behind it. One clue actually comes in the restroom of Henry Standing Bear's Red Pony bar. It seems to be connected to George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or as Henry calls it, The Battle of the Greasy Grass. Finally, Walt takes it to the Buffalo Bill Center in Cody, Wyoming for authentication. But, the night of a fundraiser, with all kinds of aficionados of western art in attendance, the conservator is attacked, and the canvas is stolen.
Walt's investigation is a story of Native and western history, art, and repeated trips back to the Veterans' Home. The case becomes a murder investigation, as, one by one, the sheriff's suspects disappear or end up dead. But, along the way, he meets delightful characters, including Charley Lee's fellow residents.
There are serious aspects to this book, as there always are in Craig Johnson's stories. The discussions of Custer and Little Bighorn, and the differences in the viewpoints between the Native and white accounts is fascinating. Walt ponders whether he should run for office again, and his decision will impact his office staff. There's a small side story about racial threats against a Cheyenne teen basketball player in Montana, with possibilities for a future novel about a white supremacist hate group. The discussions of art and art history led me to search the Internet for information.
Johnson's writing sometimes just makes me stop and admire it, as when he says, "When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground." As Walt ponders his own demons, he reflects on George Custer. "I couldn't help but wonder at the decision-making process that had led to his death - the personal, professional, and political demons that had rushed him headlong to his destruction on that sunny hillside on June 25, 1876." Or, there's the comment we should all ponder. "The history books say that there were no survivors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but there were thousands, thousands who waited after the battle for the other cavalry boot to drop." Maybe simple sentences, but I find poetry and philosophical notes in so much of Craig Johnson's work.
But, there's also that humor that Craig Johnson, a remarkable storyteller, inserts in his books. There's witty dialogue between Henry and Walt. Vic is obsessed with getting a new truck, and she and Walt have amusing conversations about that. And, the book culminates in the funniest, most unusual chase scene I've ever read.
Every time I pick up one of Craig Johnson's short stories, novellas, or novels, I know I'm in for a treat. There will be wit, philosophy, sometimes history, always a compelling story. Johnson gives us remarkable characters in a landscape that is foreign to most of us. And, he leaves us feeling as if we've spent time in the company of a bard who spins his poetry and songs of the west.
Craig Johnson's website is https://www.craigallenjohnson.com/
Next to Last Stand by Craig Johnson. Viking, 2020. ISBN 97805255722539 (hardcover), 336p.
FTC Full Disclosure - I received a .pdf to review for a journal.