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Hell is Empty [review 2]
Sheriff Walt Longmire #7
Craig Johnson

2011/ ISBN 9780670022779
Police Procedural / Wyoming / Contemporary

Reviewed by L J Roberts

First Sentence: “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to talk with your mouth full?”

What started as a routine hand-off of prisoners quickly became anything but routine. Sociopath and child-killer Raymond Shade escapes along with two other prisoners and two FBI hostages into the rugged mountains of Wyoming. Also headed that way is a major spring blizzard. Sheriff Walt Longmire, with a Colt .45, a Sharpe’s rifle, copy of “Dante’s Inferno”, and Indian mysticism heads into the mountains, and the storm, to save the hostages and bring the killers to justice.

Normally, a book of this caliber prompts and long, detailed review. “Hell is Empty,” however, is so well written and memorable, it’s a book to be read rather than talked about.

The trademarks of Johnson’s writing are very much in evidence. From the first sentence, you are drawn into the characters and the environment. Not only are the white-hat characters interesting and people you’d want on your side, and Walt is a true white-hat character. He is intelligent, imperfectly human and has a drive for justice that is reminiscent of Robert Parker’s Spenser at his best.

Readers new to the series need have no fear of feeling they’ve been dropped in without reference as Johnson quickly and succinctly provides their frame and fleshes them out. But it takes a real skill to create villains who are interesting and multi-dimensional as well. One of Johnson’s most intriguing characters is Virgil White Buffalo. At over 7 feet tall, and the grandfather of the murdered boy, Virgil is a criminal, vessel of Indian mythology and philosopher. Referring to “Dante’s Inferno”, Virgil observes that “All the horrors in this book are the horrors of the mind, and they are the only ones that can truly harm us.”

Evocative descriptions create a very strong, almost painfully so, sense of place. Whether sitting in a café, trying to avoid freezing from a storm or burning in a fire, you are walking along side with Walt, trying to stay alive and, sometimes, looking at death.
Johnson’s writing and dialogue are effective and peppered with wry humor. Walt, in a particularly perilous moment, thinks “I couldn’t die—I had too many women who would kill me.” Just when you think you know where the plot is going, Johnson changes direction and, sometimes, your perceptions of events. What could have been a stereotypical hard-boiled action story, is so much more. The literary references enhance both the story and the characters without ever feeling forced or contrived.

If anyone knows how to tell a story, it’s Craig Johnson, and Hell is Emptyis one of his best.

Reviews of other titles in this series

Junk Yard Dogs #6
Hell is Empty #7 [review 1] [review 2]
Any Other Name #10

Reviewed 2011
© 2011