Kindness Goes Unpunished
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Kindness Goes Unpunished begins with Walt Longmire reading a fairy tale to a class of skeptical kindergarteners. “My daddy says you’re a butt hole,” one of the children offers. Another child blurts out that his daddy “smokes his medicine.” Walt finds himself uncharacteristically flustered and overmatched by the five-year-olds as his storytelling skills falter. But this rather benign predicament is only a prelude to much worse troubles that lie ahead.
When Walt journeys with his friend Henry Standing Bear from the familiar ground of Absaroka County, Wyoming, to Philadelphia, he anticipates nothing more taxing than attending a gallery opening for Henry’s prize collection of Indian photographs and a visit with his daughter, Cady. But a vicious attack on Cady leaves her near death and embroils Walt in an investigation that casts suspicion on Cady’s boyfriend and fellow lawyer, Devon Conliffe, Assistant District Attorney Vince Osgood, as well as drug dealer Toy Diaz and the brutal Shankar Duvall. As Walt moves back and forth between staying at Cady’s bedside and searching frantically for the man who hurt her, he is drawn deeper and deeper into big-city drug crime and a political cover-up. Along the way, a series of mysterious notes left for him suggest someone is watching, anticipating, and perhaps guiding his every move. But is it the killer or someone trying to help? And why do so many people who might be able to answer Walt’s questions keep turning up dead?
Within this narrative frame, Kindness Goes Unpunished offers fans of Walt Longmire all the dry wit, cultural sophistication, and cowboy toughness they’ve come to expect from the Wyoming sheriff. But it is also very much a novel about the bonds of family and friendship, and the necessity of hope for navigating life’s violent contingencies. Walt knows the odds of his daughter surviving a coma are long and that the odds of emerging from it fully intact are even longer. How to maintain hope in the face of such uncertainty—and in the midst of the violence and corruption he finds in Philadelphia—is the central theme of this fast-paced thriller. And while Walt’s skills as a storyteller may have failed him in the classroom, they keep the narrative of Kindness Goes Unpunished taut and unpredictable, and his skills as a detective never falter.
It’s no secret that I like using phrases for my titles that might have a double or deeper meaning. This one came from the former Philadelphia Inquirer editorialist Steve Lopez. “Philadelphia, land of giants, where no act of kindness goes unpunished.” I think it speaks to the fact that some of the best actions in our lives are the most misunderstood, and for Walt, Philadelphia and the East can be a contrary environment outside his experience or jurisdiction. A stranger in a strange land, his emotional state concerning his daughter lures him into a dangerous place where he feels as if he has to make up the rules and mete out punishment. In law enforcement or life, that’s a desperate place to be.
Q. Family seems particularly important in Kindness Goes Unpunished—the bond between Walt and Cady but also between members of the Moretti family—and there is a degree of tenderness in your novel not found in many mysteries. Did you set out to make family a central concern of the novel or did it emerge as you told the story?
The importance of relationships is central to the story and to Walt’s life. Although the image of the vengeful loner is pretty iconic to the American West, it is not in my novels. Walt’s strengths lie in his connections to his family, his friends, and the people of the community. In the stark background of the high plains, the society of mankind becomes more evident, but it doesn’t mean that it’s any less essential on Broad Street. Family makes you tender, makes you confront your own humanity on an elevated scale; makes you deal with society, justice, honor, integrity—and that’s all before leaving the breakfast table in the morning. I think it was Sam Peckinpah who said it best: You need to enter your house justified.
Q. The importance of hope also runs throughout the novel. Why did you decide to make hope such a powerful force in Kindness Goes Unpunished?
I’m not all that interested in the acts of violence that people perpetrate upon each other, but I am interested in the aftereffects of those acts. I’ve dealt with the aftermath of those dark moments, and that’s the part that has resonance for me. The positive aspects of the human condition can be tenuous in those times, but they are all we have to keep us going. Intrinsic to a “murder mystery” are the less than desirable traits of human interaction, but I think we, as writers, are also faced with conveying the good. We need to keep a positive outlook on humanity when faced with it at its worst. Hope, faith, and charity are damned important in keeping that humanity, even if those acts of kindness are punished. Just ask somebody when the chips are down. Without hope, well, there isn’t much of a future.
Q. Why did you choose Philadelphia as the setting for the novel rather than the familiar terrain of Wyoming?
I like the cheese steaks from George’s on 9th Street in the Italian Market. Just kidding, even though I’ve been known to eat three a day. Seriously, I met my wife there. I love Philadelphia, and think it sometimes gets overlooked as one of the grand cities of the United States. So when I was casting about for a city that Cady might live in, Vic might’ve come from, and a place to which Walt would have a connection, Philadelphia became an obvious choice. That, and I have two daughters and a granddaughter there. Also, I wanted to take Walt out of his element and not have the novel seem like a bad episode of McCloud. (Sorry, Dennis.) There were things I wanted to explore outside of Absaroka County, so that I could learn and convey more about Wyoming, the West, and Walt in contrast.
Q. This is your third Walt Longmire novel. Are you discovering more about Walt as you write about him from one novel to the next? Has he changed since you began writing about him?
Oh, God, yes. Anytime you take on a series in first-person present tense, you’re going to have to get to know that character damn well. I think it’s also more than pretty important that Walt and all the continuing characters in the books grow and change; it’s important to the readers and to me. When I first introduced Walt Longmire he was in the throws of an elongated depression, but in dealing with the complications of the case that is solved in The Cold Dish, and by facing his problems, he started coming around. He surprises me every day, and I figure that’s a good thing because if he’s surprising me, he might just be surprising the reader, and that’s part of my job.
Q. What motivates you as a mystery writer—the issue of crime and the criminal mind, the deductive reasoning of detective work, the larger social problems that crime so often reveals?
All of the above, but the seminal motivation is definitely social problems. People always ask where I get my ideas, but just from the limited view I have of society, I get more ideas than I’ll ever have time to write. I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Los Angeles Times either in print or online, and the news from these sources is enough to make me want to climb up in the trees and start screaming, but it’s that irritation that motivates me for the long haul. Injustice is the burr under my saddle blanket, and it has become Walt’s as well.
Q. What mystery writers have most influenced your own work?
Shakespeare, Chekhov, Dickens, Steinbeck, Harper Lee . . . Go ahead, tell me that they aren’t mystery writers. I dare you. Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Dorothy M. Johnson, Wallace Stegner, M. F. K. Fisher, Larry McMurtry, James Lee Burke, Tony Hillerman, James Crumley, Elmore Leonard, and George MacDonald Fraser. Some of them are mystery writers, some are Western writers, some are both, some are neither. I don’t like to classify as to genre, I guess. Poetry is important to the process; I learned that from my buddy Mark Spragg. I read a lot while writing and poetry is like jet fuel—Wendell Berry, Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, just to name a few. I was fortunate enough to use the work of another good friend, Mandy Smoker, in the novel—you want to know how smart this cowboy writer is? Smart enough to not try and write Indian poetry.
Q. No doubt your readers are eager for the next novel and particularly curious about how the relationship between Vic and Walt will develop. Can you give us an insight and possibly a hint about what’s next?
Kiss and tell, huh? Umm . . . no. Well, I can talk about what it was I was attempting to do, but I’m not giving out with any forecast. I think the development of an event in the relationship became a foregone conclusion for a lot of readers, and the question was how long I was going to stretch it out. I’m nothing if not reactionary—in the Oxford English Dictionary way—so I opted for what seemed a natural conclusion, sooner rather than later. The motivational factors were there, whether they were love, sympathy, mother/daughter competition, or just plain lust, and the sex was indicative in its spontaneity. As stated before, I never think that the act itself is as important as the aftermath. Isn’t that always the case? It’s going to complicate things, but then why shouldn’t it? The layers of complexity in the character’s lives are the lifeblood of the series. Look for clues in how the characters deal with what has happened. Walt reacts with the more stereotypical female emotions of regret, concern, and connection, while Vic takes the more masculine response by looking at it as “just sex.” There’s a lot of generational stuff going on there, as well as gender. Will either or both of them get their hearts broken, live happily ever after, will these responses remain the same, or will they change and grow with the characters? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
- What makes Sheriff Walt Longmire such an engaging character? What are his most appealing qualities? In what ways does he differ from other sleuths?
- Kindness Goes Unpunished begins with Walt trying—and mostly failing—to tell a story to some kindergarteners. “I’m not sure when it was that my storytelling abilities began to atrophy,” he says, “but it must have been somewhere between Sesame Street and The Electric Company” (p. 2). What storytelling skills does Walt display as the narrator of the novel? What is distinctive and compelling about the way he narrates this story?
- What does the opening scene reveal about Walt, about how he is regarded in Absaroka County, and about some of the problems that community faces? Why would Craig Johnson begin the novel in this way?
- Henry Standing Bear is convinced that the healing ceremony he performs for Cady brings her back from her coma. In what ways does this suggest a fundamentally different approach to healing than standard Western medical practice? Why does Henry feel it is important for Cady to “hear” them speaking even while she is in a coma?
- Dr. Rissman tells Walt not to get his hopes too high for his daughter’s recovery. But Walt knows that hope is essential. “I’d seen what the hopeless approach was like, and I was never going back there again” (pp. 206–207). In what ways is the novel as a whole about the importance of hope?
- What enables Walt, with help from Vic and Henry, to unravel the mystery behind the murders in Philadelphia? What special knowledge does he bring to the case? Would ordinary Philadelphia detectives have been able to solve it?
- How does Sheriff Longmire regard Philadelphia and Philadelphians? How is he regarded in the city? What cultural contrasts does Johnson develop over the course of the novel?
- Look closely at how Walt Longmire questions people. By what means is he able to detect whether or not they are telling the truth?
- Kindness Goes Unpunished features some very strong women characters—Lena Moretti and her daughter, Vic Moretti, as well as Cady Longmire who, even though she is incapacitated for most of the action, is still a powerful presence in the novel. What makes these women so forceful? How do they deal with the men in their lives?
- How did you feel about the passion ignited between Vic and Walt? What was the spark that set it off? How do you imagine their relationship will unfold?