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Author of popular Longmire series portrays West's cultural complexity

Published July 18, 2013 3:32 pm

Fiction • Craig Johnson will read from his ninth book, The Serpent's Tooth.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Walt Longmire sure is smart for a Wyoming sheriff.

Author Craig Johnson hears that statement all too often, and it rankles him every time.

If he hopes to accomplish anything with his best-selling crime series — told in the voice of Longmire, the pragmatic top law officer in fictional Absaroka County, Wyo. — it's to dispel stereotypes and portray Wyoming, and the American West, as the culturally complex and subtly sophisticated place it is.

"There are whole layers of the American West that many people don't even know exist," said Johnson, who will be at the Viridian Event Center in West Jordan on Thursday to read from and sign copies of The Serpent's Tooth, the ninth book in the Longmire series.

The Serpent's Tooth finds the sheriff, tough-talking partner Victoria Morretti and best friend Henry Standing Bear in a story familiar to Utahns who follow the news.

Cord Lynear, a "lost boy" expelled from a South Dakota polygamist community, shows up in Durante, Wyo. He is followed by self-appointed bodyguard Orrin Porter Rockwell, a man who uncannily resembles and genuinely believes he is the "Destroying Angel of Mormondom" and Brigham Young's notorious protector who died in 1878.

As Longmire and crew search for Cord's missing mother —keeping the boy occupied in a jail cell with repeated showings of "My Friend Flicka"— they tangle with the mysterious clan's patriarch and a veritable army of well-armed associates.

The tale twists with their realization that big oil and the CIA also play a role as they try to figure out what happened to Sarah Tisdale. What they eventually learn will fascinate readers.

A newspaper article Johnson read in the Rapid City (S.D) Journal inspired The Serpent's Tooth, which, like all his previous novels, deals with a real issue Western sheriffs must address.

He thinks of his books as "socially responsible crime fiction."

"I want them to have more to say than simple whodunits — to deal with an issue that's a burr under the saddle blanket," Johnson said.

In approaching each book, Johnson makes sure his work "is grounded in the reality of the American West," a region he's adopted with fierce devotion.

A West Virginia native, Johnson first encountered UCross, Wyo., where he now lives, as a young man delivering horses from Montana.

UCross, at the time, was "a place with a public corral but no pay phone," he said. Johnson grew acquainted with it helping ranchers throw bales of hay while he waited two days for the horses' Oklahoma buyer to show up.

He loved the tiny community not far from Sheridan and eventually bought a ranch and built a house to become one of the town's fewer than 30 residents.

Johnson never thought when he "ran out of excuses" and sat down to pen The Cold Dish, his first novel, that he'd end up with the franchise Longmire has become.

A&E has adapted the series into a drama that debuted last summer as its No. 1 original series premiere of all time.

Johnson now encounters fans who love Longmire without even realizing he was born in a series of books.

That's fine with him as long as he's made his point.

A smart Wyoming sheriff is not an oxymoron.

lisac@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lcarricaburu —

Craig Johnson in West Jordan

Craig Johnson, the Wyoming-based author of the popular Walt Longmire crime series, will read from and sign copies of A Serpent's Tooth.

When • Thursday, July 25, at 7 p.m.

Where • Viridian Events Center, 1825 W. 8030 South, West Jordan.

Tickets • Free. The King's English Bookshop is the event's sponsor.