MP Pick of the Month: A SERPENT’S TOOTH by Craig Johnson

WARNING: While no major plot point is clearly revealed to do this review some are hinted at.

A Serpent’s Tooth is possibly the oddest book in Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series. While it has all the elements of humor, action, and strong characterizations, the tone does a a major, though seamless, shift to extremes. In a lesser authors hands this book would fall apart, but in Johnson’s it may be a landmark book in the series.

Foreshadowing the later half of the the book, A Serpent’s Tooth starts with Walt attending a funeral of one of Durant’s matrons. When one of her peers at the service tells him about the angel who does her household repairs for food, he looks into it and finds Cord Lynear in her home. A teenage “lost boy”, Cord has been kicked out of a polygamy sect because he took the attention of the younger girls away from the elders. Walt decides to help the boy find his missing mother, taking a zig-zag journey around the American west.
The subject of fringe religions gives Johnson great opportunity for Johnson to practice his skill for eccentric characters and the folks who have the patience to deal with them. We get a man who believes he is a two hundred year old gunman for Brigham Young and wait until you meet the UFO man. Fans of Vic Moretti will be happy to know the sexy, wise ass deputy is often on hand for commentary.
The first part of the the book has a curious feel feel to it, since there is no clear crime to investigate. The middle takes on a somewhat intentionally convoluted nature of a James Crumley novel, involving militias, the CIA, the oil business, and a very unique form of theft. The ultimate irony is that the clearer the picture becomes, the darker the story is. When Walt half opens this Pandora’s box of evil, it will change his life and the lives of many of his deputies, ending one.
In many ways, A Serpent’s Tooth is a look at institutions that fail the people. Organized religion and agencies both public and private either ignore, betray, or at times prey on on individuals and communities for their own interest. The only institution that comes off well is local law enforcement. Walt gets a lot of help from fellow sheriffs. They are the last line of defense against corruption.
Set in the Fall, A Serpent’s Tooth also deals with change. It sets up its hero and several of the supporting characters to take a look at the direction in their lives and possibly choose new ones. In a little over three hundred pages it goes from humorous to heartbreaking, capturing life in it’s mess, craziness, nobility, and most of all it’s fragility. Much like the book there is a beauty to it’s strangeness.
Craig Johnson will be at BookPeople, June 11th, 7PM to discuss and sign A Serpent’s Tooth.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: DONNYBROOK

Donnybrook by Frank Bill

Frank Bill announced his presence in 2011 with Crimes In Southern Indiana, a collection of connected short stories that take place in a meth ravaged Midwest town. His terse prose, blood soaked violence, and colorful characters who live on the fringes were a literary punch to the gut. With his first novel, Donnybrook, he proves there’s no slowing down.

Much like Crimes In Southern Indiana, Donnybrook connects the lives of several characters. However, these characters all have a single destination, Donnybrook, a three-day bare-knuckle boxing competition held by a Midwest gangster; where the last man standing wins $20,000. The book starts with one fighter, Jar Head, robbing his local gun store for the thousand-dollar entry fee. Ned Newton is paying for his by stealing a batch from a crank cooker, Chainsaw Angus, with the help of Angus’s sister Liz. Now Ned has to contend with Chainsaw as well as lawman Ross Whalon and Fu Xi, a debt collector with some martial arts skills and few scruples, who are already after him. These and a few more red neck ne’er do wells travel a strange, rollicking, funny, often violent road to get to the fight and when they get there, Bill ups it in a great convergence of a conclusion.

Everything great about Crimes In Southern Indiana goes double for Donnybrook. The dialogue pops and the characters are defined through extreme yet believable actions. Bill gives Elmore Leonard a run for his money when it comes to criminals who aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. He’s also gotten to be someone who writes one hell of an action sequence. The violence has a visceral feel and each fight is written in detail; each is specific to the two characters that are fighting, the situation and emotion. When talking with hard-boiled writer, Christa Faust about the book, she said, “Frank writes fist fights like John Woo directs gun fights.”

Donnybrook proves Frank Bill is one of the great emerging talents out there. Like Joe R Lansdale, he captures the voice of his region, turning it into a literary voice of his own and he delivers a rush that’s often more associated to cinema than to books. I’m already waiting for his next one.