Author Craig Johnson on his Longmire mystery series

First aired on The Sunday Edition (2/12/12)

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Twenty-five people live in Ucross, Wyoming. One of them is Craig Johnson, a rancher-turned-writer who drives an old pickup truck and lives on 260 acres in a log-house with his wife Judy. He is also the author of the award-winning, bestselling Longmire mysteries. Walt Longmire is a middle-aged, world-weary lawman who is the "sadder-but-wiser" sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. He's a "white-hat" kind of guy, who's been damaged by the death of his wife and by his time spent fighting in the Vietnam War.


Johnson's latest, As the Crow Flies, has just hit bookstores. In a recent interview, he spoke with The Sunday Edition about the series and its rural setting.

The first book in the series was a long time coming. Johnson wrote two chapters of The Cold Dish, his debut novel, then put them away in a drawer because he felt he didn't know enough about the work of a sheriff. He decided to consult with the sheriff of a nearby town, a man named Larry Kirkpatrick, and asked him to help with procedural aspects of the book. Kirkpatrick agreed. Johnson went home feeling confident he could move forward -- so confident, in fact, that he put all his energy into getting his ranch up and running. It was almost 10 years later that he went back to the novel. He felt embarrassed about going back to Kirkpatrick for advice because it had been so long. But he was in town filling up gas station when the sheriff pulled up in a cruiser. Johnson thought that he wouldn't remember their brief meeting nine years earlier, but in fact Kirkpatrick recalled all the details of the conversation. And then Kirkpatrick added: "You know what, I don't mean to be critical or anything like this, but this book is going kinda slow."

Walt Longmire is in part modelled on Kirkpatrick, but Johnson calls his fictional sheriff "a Frankenstein kind of creation" based on "the better qualities of the guys I did ride-alongs with there in Wyoming and up in Montana." Johnson regards him as "a detective for the disenfranchised. He kind of tends to take on cases that maybe nobody else wants."

Johnson said he likes to refer to Walt as "over: he's over-age, he's overweight, he's overly depressed, you know, but he still goes out and tries to get the job done, and I think that's kind one of the things that a lot people respond to as far as the character is concerned. He's not a James Bond kind of guy. He's just out there doing the best job that he can with what it is he has available."


A particularly interesting aspect of the novels is the relationship with the indigenous people, especially the Northern Cheyenne and Crow people. "My ranch is just immediately south of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and the Crow Reservation right there on the Wyoming-Montana border. And they're just such incredible people," he said. "To write a contemporary American western and try to leave the Indians out of it would just be hideous. It would be, for lack of a better term, criminal." Johnson went on to explain that he tries to "include as many stratums of society of the American West" as he can in his books, adding, "It's a complex society out there on the high plains. "

The books have spawned a television series, called Longmire, on the A&E network. Seeing his books turned into films, Johnson said, is "very wonderful but very strange at the same time." The biggest difference between the books and the TV show? "Everybody's better looking on television," he laughed.

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