MysteryPeople’s Pick of the Month is Craig Johnson’s Next To Last Stand. Read on for Scott M.’s thoughts on the latest Sheriff Longmire caper.
“Unless you know your craft, you can not express your art.” – Alfred Hitchcock
This quote kept popping up in my mind, starting at page one and all the way to the final sentence of Craig Johnson’s latest Sheriff Walt Longmire novel, Next To Last Stand. Johnson tells this story with such a light and humorous touch, it can be easy to miss many of the themes and ideas he explores, seeing it as one of his “funny books.” That said, you would be numb to miss the emotion those themes touch.
It begins with Walt chatting with The Wavers, a group of elderly vets who sit in their souped-up wheelchairs outside the Wyoming Home For Sailors And Soldiers, waving at passing motorists. In Walt’s position we view and understand these men the traveling families don’t see through their windshield. It subtly leads into one of the main themes of the book concerning men who will never stop being soldiers.
One of the Wavers, Charlie Lee Stillwater has passed. A Black vet and amateur student of western history and art, Charlie was a favorite of Walt’s daughter Cady. He appears to have died of natural causes. The mystery concerns a million dollars found under his bed in a shoebox.
Also found in Charlie’s room is an artist’s study of a cavalry soldier fighting a Native American. Walt soon matches it to the painting Custer’s Last Fight by Cassilly Adams, made famous by the Anheuser Busch company from the reprints they sent to practically every bar in the country. History says the original burned up in a fire at Fort Bliss in 1946. However, that may not be the case and Charlie may have had the painting in his possession, brokering a deal. Soon Walt is plunged into the western art world, dealing with high Wyoming society, dangerous Russians, and history versus legend.
Johnson may have given mystery fiction its best MacGuffin since The Maltese Falcon. The painting itself holds a fascinating history that engages both Walt and the reader, his deputy and lover, Vic, not so much. It also has him donning a tux to go undercover at an art auction with comic results. Also, much like The Maltese Falcon, Johnson makes one of the mysteries concern its actual existence.
It also serves as a touchstone for many of the book’s themes. One is the “Print The Legend” controversy often associated with the west. The painting itself holds many inaccuracies, including Custer wearing his hair long and the attacking tribes having shields that were more appropriately carried by Zulu warriors in Africa. One of the funnier chapters has Walt struggling to explain what he was taught about the battle to Vic while his Cheyenne buddy Henry Standing constantly lobs history from the Native American point of view all while the highly inaccurate Custer Of The West plays on the TV above the bar.
He also uses painting and plot to examine the ghosts combatants carry when the war is over. Craig ties this to what Walt is dealing with from the events that occurred in Depth Of Winter that has brought out his darker side of him, partly created by his Vietnam experience. A wonderful moment that ties these themes together occurs during a chess game with Walt and his predecessor Lucian, a World War Two vet, as they discuss how the many famous battles are lost ones.
The book ends poignantly, in a sentence he sets up for in the beginning and alludes to at certain points without drawing attention. Between these chapters is an entertaining yarn of art, history, old soldiers, and the battles they continue to fight. Ironically, his craft has created a finer piece of art than the historic painting he writes about.