Friday, August 7, 2015

Longmire by Land, Hansmalch by Sea


Dry Bones, by Craig Johnson, is the second Walt Longmire novel I’ve read (following Hell is Frozen, discussed a couple years back). I know comparatively little about the 13-novel Walt Longmire universe, but I still liked Dry Bones even better, if for different reasons.

Here, Walt, the compulsively erudite sheriff of Absaroka County in Northern Wyoming, is called in to pull the corpse of Danny Lone Elk, a Cheyenne rancher, from a reservoir on his sprawling property. Lone Elk ranch also happens to be where the largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton on record was recently discovered, the ancient past uncovered by the human present.

The T-Rex’s bones are being picked over by several competing interests: the fractious Lone Elk family; the High Plains Dinosaur museum, the dino diggers who actually discovered it; the Cheyenne Conservancy , a tribal land-trust organization; and the U.S. Government, represented by an ambitious, but intellectually barren U.S. district attorney, name of Trost.

It’s up to Sheriff Walt to maintain a certain peace among these contenders while he investigates Danny’s suspicious death and its connection with them dry bones.

In the background, Walt has family problems to deal with when his daughter’s husband meets a bad end in the bad Big City, a crime he suspects was committed by an offender whom Walt locked up some novels back.

Sorry I can’t be more specific. The fact that I’ve read only a couple of the Longmire novels left me clueless now and then. I caught a couple of seasons of the Longmire cable series, before A&E dumped it off its schedule (leaving Netflix to rush in for resuscitation). But the novels, to me, seem to exist quite apart from the series, which has been markedly more serious and solemn in the manner of prestige cable series (and being that we’re still grazing on cable at the Bar T&E, we won’t be catching up to the herd too soon.)

Hell is Frozen was an action-packed, over-the-top high country chase epic with a pleasurable dash of the supernatural—which I liked for those very reasons. Dry Bones reads quieter, almost like a cowboy cosy, concerned with the small things of rural life.

Walt’s wisecracks seem less forced less this time and I like the annoying way he wears his book-readin’ like his sheriff’s arm patch. He’s not too good a good guy. He seems happily resilient in the face of it all, not one to turn bitter and brooding like warm stale canteen water. Living in some of the most beautiful country on God’s Earth, why wallow in despair?

Dry Bones is a colorful, absorbing and entertaining contemporary western yarn. Craig Johnson’s love of the stormy Wyoming landscape he calls home tumbles across every page. The western novel may be in permanent eclipse, but I’m thankful Johnson (and others like Loren Estleman) are around to keep it alive. There really was and is an America outside our great cities. It does neither our nation nor our literature any good to forget that.


Research on an upcoming high-seas novel has led me on voyages to many far-flung literary shores. Among the latest distant islands is S.S. Silverspray by John Langdon, a novel published by MacMillan in 1958. (Langdon worked on many ships as an electrician before finally coming ashore as a reference librarian at San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute Library.)

S.S. Silverspray is so forgotten, its presence barely registers on Amazon or any other maps. I however was lucky to dig up a copy of it at, I recall, at Bibliomania in downtown Oakland.

S.S. Silverspray is a link in the chain of Skippers Gone Bad books, a row that includes Moby Dick, The Sea Wolf and The Caine Mutiny. Bad captains are always a good hook. While the law of the sea has the captain going down with his ship, in these stories the danger is the ship going down with its captain.

The S.S. Silverspray is a 1950s freighter bound from San Francisco to the South Seas. Its master is Milo Hansmalch, a man whose know everything about ships and nothing about people. He possesses a stupendous bigotry and brutish outlook that leads to clashes with his multi-ethnic crew and into a variety of storms both human and natural.

Silverspray is not a particularly ambitious fable in the vein of Melville or London. It’s more of an exercise in social-realism and focuses on the day-to-day life of its crew of fifty. There’s a plenty of precise detail about the workings of a freighter of that era and the various challenges faced by a big ship on the high sea. It made for invaluable research for my purposes.

On the negative side, there’s seems to be little relationship between the men and the environment they’re sailing through. Hansmalch’s problems, while serious and morally fatal, never impact the fate of the ship itself—the final drama takes place in port. Its close focus and realism makes it closer to say a Frank Norris story than a Herman Wouk epic.

Langdon’s knowledge of and respect for the ship’s crew members leads him to give equal time to all the characters from the utility man number one on up. On a humanistic level, that’s commendable. On a fiction level, it makes the novel feel unfocussed and adrift. Nor is the writing very good, with awkward dialogue that includes poor stabs at authentic dialect that, as they often do, lead to the kind of stereotyping the author sincerely tries to avoid.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo of S.S. Silverspray by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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