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The Dark Horse
Craig Johnson
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INTRODUCTION

After twenty-five years on the job, Walt Longmire, sheriff of Wyoming’s Absaroka County, finds himself at a crossroads. The recent past has been tumultuous for the widowed lawman. His only daughter, Cady, is trying to get on her feet again after a brush with death, and he’s become romantically entangled—albeit reluctantly—with his feisty undersheriff, Victoria (Vic) Moretti. It’s also an election year, and the town’s smooth-talking prosecutor has launched an aggressive campaign against him, making Walt unsure of whether he wants to continue on the job. Then, Walt is sent a “guest” prisoner from a neighboring county, and—convinced of her innocence—he is galvanized to pursue the one thing in which he’s always believed: justice.

It’s more than Mary Barsad’s beauty and wealth that set her apart in a place where most criminal cases are generally “Bubba shot Skeeter while they were drinking beer in the cab of Skeeter’s truck and trying to figure out if Bubba’s Charter Arms revolver was loaded” (p. 201). Utterly indifferent to her own fate, the champion horsewoman has confessed to shooting her husband, Wade, in the head six times after he set fire to their barn, which contained her eight beloved horses. However, as Walt teases out threads of her story, he discovers that Mary was so doped up on insomnia medication that she can’t actually remember the murder.

So it takes little prodding for Eric Boss, an old acquaintance investigating the fire, to convince Walt to make a few undercover inquiries over in Absalom on behalf of the insurance company. But the Barsad ranch is also near the spread Walt once called home and his return is complicated by unsettling memories. And he isn’t there long before he learns that the dead man had a gift for making enemies on both sides of the law.

Born Willis Barnecke, Wade dodged a murder charge by testifying against several Atlantic City mob acquaintances before disappearing into the witness protection program. He’d already embezzled away the good name of his first new identity when he got up to his old tricks as Wade Barsad. To ensure the FBI ignored his more recent illegal activities, Wade strung them along with the promise of further information.

Walt is literally dodging bullets when both Vic and his old friend Henry Standing Bear turn up in town. And, since the FBI’s trying to warn him off the case and just about everyone in Absalom—from the illegal Guatemalan beauty to the old cowpoke who adored Mary and the ranchers whose cattle he stole—harbored a grudge against Wade, Walt’s going to need all the help he can get to bring in the real killer.

In The Dark Horse, Craig Johnson deftly explores the devastating wake of one brutal man but leavens it with his western lawman’s wry, erudite humor. Fast-paced, smart, and compulsively readable out of the gate, The Dark Horse is a surefire winner and a fantastic addition to Johnson’s addictive, award-winning Walt Longmire series.

ABOUT CRAIG JOHNSON

Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson lives with his wife Judy in Ucross, Wyoming, population twenty-five.

A CONVERSATION WITH CRAIG JOHNSON

Q. When you first started writing The Dark Horse, what was the first scene you envisioned and how did the rest of the novel develop from there?

I’ve always looked at my protagonist as a vertical figure on a horizontal landscape, and the opening scene of The Dark Horse is no different. The opening scene was always the one of Walt at the bridge overlooking Absalom for two reasons; first, I wanted to begin with the sheriff entering an unfriendly town to get the action going rather than having the reader sit through an elongated exposition. This also led to the split-time narrative that I’d used in Another Man’s Moccasins. The second reason for using the form is that I like to bookend the novels and have Walt end the book in the place where he started out—in that sense, the bridge became a metaphor and a landmark.

Q. What do you see as the code of the West, and does it still exist—if it ever did—outside of fiction?

There’s a great line from Ride the High Country, the Sam Peckinpah film with Joel McCrea, where McRea’s character, an older lawman, makes the remark that he just wants to enter his house justified. I don’t think there’s a geographical aspect to doing the right thing, it varies from person to person. The West is interesting in that it’s so physically large and the population is so small, and this makes for a stark ethical background. I think it’s easier to respond to society’s mores when you have an audience; it’s when you are alone that your true character shows—that’s when the code of the West becomes interesting to me.

Q. In what ways is Wyoming different from other western states? Could you—or Walt—ever live anywhere else?

Wyoming is the least populated state in America, and I’ve got to admit that I like that. I was recently at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C. and the woman who was in charge of wrangling me was apologizing for the long lines at lunch and then asked me what the lines were like in Wyoming. I told her that we didn’t have lines, and that folks tend to bunch up in the front and say, “You first.” I like Wyoming best, or else I wouldn’t have built my ranch here, but I’m not particularly metrophobic. I like New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Omaha. I think city life provides a stimulus that a lot of people respond to, but I enjoy the isolation of ranch life, it keeps me focused. As for Walt, I think he’s the same way; he enjoys the city (see Kindness Goes Unpunished), but he also enjoys coming home.

Q. Dog and Wahoo Sue are as rich and developed as any of the novel’s human cast. Do animals have a different role in the West than they do in more populated parts of the world?

With animals, I think it’s just a question of being around them, not really a question of geography. I’m sure the hansom cab drivers in Central Park have just as close a relationship with their horses as the cowboys of Wyoming. Like Hershel says in The Dark Horse, “Animals are the finest people I know.”

Q. Cady put herself on a “mystery-a-day” program while recovering from her injuries. Why do you think someone who endured the kind of trauma that Cady went through would enjoy reading mysteries? Why are so many people drawn to this genre?

It appears to be a universal, whether it’s simply a voyeuristic glimpse into another world, or a quest for justice that seems to elude us in reality. We live in a time when crime fiction readers are more sophisticated, they expect arc of story, fully-developed characters, social commentary, historical accuracy, and humor. I think it’s also a question of what my buddy Tony Hillerman used to call telling a good story. One thing is for sure, you’re dealing with life and death—the stakes don’t get any higher.

Q. Even though Henry Standing Bear has a relatively minor role in this book, he is a big influence on Walt. Twice in the novel—when Walt is fighting Cliff Cly and when he’s trying to outrace a truck—he draws on advice he received from the Cheyenne Nation. Who would Walt be without Henry?

Q. Up shit creek, without the proverbial or figurative paddle. People always refer to Henry as Walt’s sidekick, but I think it might be more like Walt is Henry’s. I’ve got a good Cheyenne friend, Marcus Red Thunder, and I draw an awful lot of Henry from him. I think if you’re lucky enough to have one good friend in life, you’ve done well. Walt’s done well, too.

Q. When Walt tries to persuade Rose to stop drinking until her baby is born, she tells him, “Mr. Good Samaritan, you’re in the wrong town” (p. 89). It must have been difficult for you/Walt to accept the helplessness of his position considering the possible consequences. Could you talk about this?

I think it was intrinsic to the book to have Walt out of his element, away from all of his usual resources, which only amplifies the helplessness you sometimes feel in law enforcement. It’s frustrating, sure, but you keep going out there and doing the job because people need you to do that. Walt is something of a knight in that respect—I think it’s Ruby who comments on that part of Walt’s character.

Q. The Walt Longmire novels are never afraid to tackle issues of social inequity. Is this why you choose to write Juana—the most intelligent resident of Absalom—as an illegal immigrant? What are you trying to say through her character?

She was an outsider in a town of outsiders, and emblematic of one of the books themes—that sometimes the rules aren’t meant to apply to everybody. That’s the big question here, what society is and what happens when it breaks down. She says it best herself when she addresses the myth of independence in the West. There is a dichotomy in the structure that she embodies.

Q. Cowboy movies have been around for as long as Hollywood, so it’s difficult not to compare fictional cowboys with their cinematic counterparts. Is Walt’s character influenced by, say, Jimmy Stewart or Clint Eastwood? Who would you cast as Walt in a film adaptation?

It is, but I don’t. I avoid using actors as characters, simply because I don’t know any. I prefer to use real people from my life. I get asked that question a lot, though—Gary Cooper, but he’s not returning our calls.

Q. Walt’s adventures seem to strike increasingly closer to home. Where will Walt Longmire’s boots take him next?

The next book, Junkyard Dogs, is very loosely based on a story I actually took from my little town of twenty-five. There’s this junkyard to the south of Durant and when a new housing development is built nearby, the conflict leads to a modern day range war. I realize it doesn’t sound like it, but it might be the funniest Walt book yet.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Who is the novel’s dark horse?
  2. Is Walt willfully trying to lose his reelection campaign? Would his life be easier if he were no longer sheriff of Absaroka County? Why do you think he chose to become a lawman instead of a rancher?
  3. If Cady marries Michael Moretti, Walt and Vic would find themselves in an even more complicated relationship. Does Walt owe it to Cady to break things off with Vic?
  4. Do you agree with Walt’s prediction that the potential jurors for Mary Barsad’s trial would find her guilty because she shows no repentance?
  5. In what way does Absalom’s bloody past affect the course of the novel? How would you answer Bill Nolan’s question to Walt: “if nobody remembers the history, did it still happen?” (p. 131).
  6. Does the Powder-River-Pound-Down-Tough-Man-Contest help Walt work through his anxiety about Cady? Is physical violence simply an inextricable part of the male vocabulary?
  7. For a Wyoming lawman, Walt’s distrust of horses comes as something of a surprise. How does it affect your opinion of the good sheriff? Do you believe that animals have an intuitive sense of human intentions?
  8. Walt remembers his father as saying, “the outside of a horse is always good for the inside of a man” (p. 296). What do you think he meant?
  9. How much responsibility does Walt bear for Hershel’s death? Did his actions needlessly endanger Benjamin’s life?
  10. Do you approve of the witness protection program? Is it fair that criminals—perhaps murderers themselves—can escape punishment for their crimes by testifying against more serious offenders? Is Cliff Cly’s behavior acceptable for an officer of the law?
  11. No one deserves to die, but did Wade’s brother invite his fate?