Craig Johnson’s latest Walt Longmire novella, The Highwayman, has the author dipping into the ghost story genre. Walt and Henry are asked to help out a state trooper who is getting radio calls from a fellow statie who died over forty years before. Craig was kind enough to talk to about the book and the supernatural.
MysteryPeople Scott: What made you want to tackle a ghost story?
CJ: I’ve always loved the Charles Dickens short story The Signalman, a little, thirteen-pager he wrote about a train wreck north of London. It’s an interesting piece, and I’ve always wondered how you would update it in the face of modern technology. Well, I was talking to a Highway Patrol buddy of mine, and we were discussing one of our favorite places in the state–the Wind River Scenic Byway– and he told me that because of the two thousand foot granite cliffs on the sides of the canyon, radio frequency didn’t work and how the old-timers used to refer to it as no-man’s land… Hence, The Highwayman.
“I’ve always loved the Charles Dickens short story The Signalman, a little, thirteen-pager he wrote about a train wreck north of London. It’s an interesting piece, and I’ve always wondered how you would update it in the face of modern technology.”
MPS: What did you learn about the form while writing it?
CJ: I’ve flirted with the form before, but this was a full-blown, straight-ahead ghost story, and I knew I was going to have to walk the tightrope on this one. I think the genre is best served when you don’t get too heavy-handed and try and stay in the margins of what’s possible and what’s not. I was interested in the method of legend making and seeing if I could construct a worthy adversary for Walt and Henry who might not be there at all.
MPS: Walt has had his brushes with the spiritual and supernatural before. Why is he still a skeptic?
CJ: First and foremost, Walt is a detective, and the world of detection is not enhanced by spirituality, mysticism, or emotion; it’s a mindset of empirical data–nothing but the facts, Ma’am. I think he realizes, certainly through his friendship with Henry, that there might be more out there than meets the eye, but he can’t let that get in the way of deductive reasoning, which is the hallmark for his profession and life.
MPS: This book is a great example of why you are a master of the last line. How do you approach that final sentence?
CJ: Well, there’s this bookseller in Austin who was one of the first to realize I write my books in a cyclical fashion, and that they pretty much end as they begin. Endings are so crucial, and a writer ignores them while writing a novel at his own peril. Agatha Christie used to say that a good writer holds you till the last sentence, but a great writer holds you till the last word–I’d say I’m a good writer.
“A half million bikers, one cop, and the introduction of femme fatale, Lola Wojciechowski, the Lola for whom Henry’s ’59 Thunderbird is named–it seemed like something the gang should be involved in.”
MPS: Can you tell us a little bit about the Walt book coming out in September?
CJ: An Obvious Fact is derived from a well-known line, “There is nothing so deceiving as an obvious fact…” Henry Standing Bear keeps quoting Sherlock Holmes to Walt, having borrowed his volumes of the Annotated Short Stories of Arthur Conan Doyle throughout the book. Ever on the search for opportunities to broaden Walt’s jurisdiction, I sent the sheriff, Henry, and Vic over to Hulett in Crook County, a town of 396 brave souls and one police officer. Now, usually that percentage of law-enforcement is adequate on the high plains, but across the border in South Dakota is the sister town of Sturgis, which annually holds the largest motorcycle rally in the world, and about half the attendees cross into Wyoming in a loop that takes them by Devils Tower and through the tiny town of Hulett, Wyoming. A half million bikers, one cop, and the introduction of femme fatale, Lola Wojciechowski, the Lola for whom Henry’s ’59 Thunderbird is named–it seemed like something the gang should be involved in.
MPS: What is the closest brush you’ve had with the supernatural?
CJ: My wife’s brussel sprouts, they’re haunting.
Signed copies of The Highwayman are now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.