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Latest Longmire mystery may be Johnson's best yet

By James E. Casto

"A Serpent's Tooth." By Craig Johnson. Viking. 335 pages. $26.95.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Craig Johnson grew up in Huntington, but he's created a successful mystery series that's set a long, long way from his boyhood home.

Johnson graduated from the former Huntington East High School (class of 1979) and Marshall University. After knocking around the country a bit, he ended up in tiny Ucross, Wyo. (population 25). There he divides his time between tending his ranch and writing a string of modern-day western novels featuring Walt Longmire, the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County.

Long a favorite of critics and fans alike, Johnson's novels gained a whole new audience in the summer of 2012 with the debut of a new series, "Longmire," on the A&E television channel. In its debut season, "Longmire" drew more total viewers than any other A&E series in the network's history. That being the case, it's no surprise that this summer the show's back for a second season.

And, just in time for this second season, Johnson has published "A Serpent's Tooth." It's the ninth installment of his Longmire saga -- and it may be the best one yet.

If you (like me) love a good mystery novel, then you know that some keep you reading because you're caught up in the plot. You're eager to learn what happens next. Others, however, have a different appeal. Especially those that, like Johnson's books, feature a continuing cast of characters. The plot's important, but you also find yourself caught up in the interplay among the characters.

And so "A Serpent's Tooth" reintroduces us not only to Sheriff Longmire but also to his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, and his second in commend, the young Victoria Moretti, who's a real spitfire.

Walt has serious problems with depression and ghosts from his past. He's a bit over his fighting weight and is quite a bit older than Vic, but that doesn't stop her from setting her cap for him. As for Henry, he's a very large and very tough American Indian -- a handy fellow to have at your side if, like Walt, you have a penchant for stumbling into trouble.

This time around, the trouble starts when a homeless teenage boy shows up in town. It turns out the boy, named Cord, isn't a runaway but rather a "lost boy."

Johnson has said that his books often have their beginning when a news story catches his eye. In this case, he says, he read an article about so-called "lost boys," teenage boys who are exiled by the leaders of polygamous religious groups to lessen the competition for young wives.

When Walt, Vic and Henry go looking for Cord's mother, their search leads them to the barbwire doorstep of a polygamy group that's set up shop for itself on what used to be a nearby ranch. The oddball sect is ruled by a 400-pound polygamist who, it turns out, is Cord's stepfather. He presides over his rural fiefdom from an improvised throne perched in the back of a pickup truck -- and surrounds himself with a cadre of heavily armed men who would be right at home on a SWAT team.

The group, Walt learns, has lots of money -- and lots of secrets, including some that involve Big Oil and the CIA. As his investigation heats up, so does his relationship with his sexy deputy. And the book's last few pages bring a development that jolts Walt to his very core.

James E. Casto, a retired Huntington newspaper editor and columnist, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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