The Cold Dish Teacher’s Guide

By Craig Johnson

The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson


Questions and Topics for Discussion

Absaroka County, Wyoming, is a place where candidates for public office don’t dare miss Pancake Day. It is a place where people don’t tend to lock the doors of their pickup trucks and where Rainier beer is a cherished elixir. It is also the place where Melissa Little Bird, a Cheyenne girl with fetal alcohol syndrome, has undergone sexual torture at the hands of four members of the high school football team. In punishing the boys with only trifling sentences, the county court has done little to ease the troubled conscience of the white community or to restore the outraged dignity of the residents of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Now, two years later, Cody Pritchard, the least repentant of the four offenders, has been found shot to death, and Sheriff Walt Longmire is having trouble thinking of anyone who doesn’t have a motive.

As the sheriff tries to unravel the mystery of Pritchard’s murder, he is also trying to find answers in his lonely, disheveled personal life. Haunted by the memory of his wife, Martha, who died three years before, and troubled by the thought of his grown daughter whom he loves deeply but who never seems to call, Longmire is in need of a guiding hand. Fortunately, he receives one from his longtime friend Henry Standing Bear. Henry has come up with a four-step plan for getting the sheriff back on his feet. The only apparent problem is with Henry himself. As a crack marksman and a second cousin of the molested girl, Henry looks like a prime suspect.

As Sheriff Longmire follows the scant and contradictory clues of the case, his investigation leads him to unexpected discoveries far beyond the identity of the killer. Along the way, he experiences the hidden sordidness of an outwardly benign community and beholds the unimaginable strength of the Cheyenne people. He also has an extraordinary encounter on a snow-covered trail that brings him in touch with an invisible but radiant dimension of truth.

A thoughtful, riveting police procedural, The Cold Dish successfully combines rich good humor with moving passages of pensive melancholy. While pressing forward like fate toward its stunning conclusion, the novel is equally adept in portraying the hard-nosed practicality of its narrator, the tragedy of sexual violence, the sublime mystery of the vast, open land, and the unconquerable humanity of the people who once called that land their own.


Q. Writing can be an isolating activity. Many of your readers may presume that living in Ucross, Wyoming, might intensify that sense of isolation. Yet, at the same time, being away from the crowd can also produce a kind of clarity and focus that can lead to some amazing creativity. How has life in Ucross affected you as a writer?

I drink a lot. Just kidding. Honestly, I’ve chosen a relatively isolated life because it gives me the focus that my writing needs. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in cities, and I’m just now getting around to distilling a lot of the experiences I had there. Writing is a solitary pursuit and I think you have to be partially at peace with yourself, but it’s the other part that’s usually producing the stuff worth reading.

Q. Your writing powerfully evokes a part of the world that you evidently know very well and of which you are clearly fond. With this, your first novel, you seem to be defining yourself as a novelist of place as much as a novelist of plots and characters. What, as you see them, are the pros and cons of being a “regional” author?

“Regional” can be a dirty word; it denotes that a writer or his work has some sort of precious niche that makes it accessible to a limited audience. I hate the word, but to answer the question: it’s a double-edged sword. I think trying to write a book that isn’t particularly location oriented is pretty weak stuff. Where a story takes place is an important context, as is the period, and the characters in The Cold Dish are who they are because of where they are, but that doesn’t mean that’s all they are. That kind of thought process is limiting and bigoted: I try to avoid it in my writing at all costs.

Q. The West is steeped in tradition. In the public mind, however, it is also steeped in clichés and stereotypes. Do you find it best to challenge the reader’s possible preconceptions about the West, to ignore them, or to turn them somehow to your advantage?

See above. Actually I love clichés and stereotypes. They’re like big, fat, hanging curveballs that linger over the plate just a little bit too long; you can’t help but hit them over the fence. My readers are like cheap dates: they like being taken advantage of as long as they’re aware of it and it’s done with a sense of humor. You can’t deal with a region like the West and ignore the road most traveled. I take advantage of a high context relationship with the reader, meaning that I respect them to understand when I’m lampooning preconceived notions that we all developed from watching The Lone Ranger.

Q. One of the values that many people associate with the West is self-reliance, and Sheriff Longmire seems at first glance to be a very independent guy. As we get to know him, however, we see the depth of his need for other people. Do you see your novel as being about the conflicting values of individuality and community?

Absolutely. It’s an American tradition to walk around thinking that we are self-reliant, but the framework of the twenty-first century makes the cult of the rugged individual troublesome. Community values are complicated, and it’s the measure of a person’s strength and decency in how they deal with these challenges. All good cops are community oriented. Self-reliant sheriffs don’t last long; they get voted out. I think it’s also a gender-related issue: women seem to have an innate understanding of society whereas most men ignore it. I tried to convey that in the way most of Walt’s safety net is female and there’s hardly anything men take for granted as much as female support, no matter how desperately they need it.

Q. Sheriff Longmire is a man of some culture. He can recognize Prokofiev’s First Symphony, and he sprinkles his narration with allusions to Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Coleridge—not necessarily what one might expect from a man who has to check his frying pans for mouse turds. What prompted you to invest Walt’s character with his well-educated inclinations?

See question three. There are a lot of preconceived notions as to what the rural sheriff is like, who he is, and I take advantage of a lot of those stereotypes. Walt does too. He likes people to underestimate him—talk about advantages . . . I think intelligent people are infinitely more interesting, and his education gives me a lot more avenues to access.

Q. Some of the supporting characters in The Cold Dish have uncannily sharp perceptions. Henry Standing Bear can sometimes predict the arrival of a snowstorm to within a minute. Omar can find the range of a long rifle shot to the nearest yard. Even though Sheriff Longmire says that looking is one of his better law-enforcement techniques, his perceptions do not rise to this level of precision. Was there a certain playfulness in your writing a mystery in which the detective is not the keenest observer?

Walt may not be as flashy as some of the supporting characters, but he has his own sensibilities. As to the playfulness, sure. If there’s a character type I despise, it’s the all-capable, all-knowing, physically perfect protagonist. My idea of hell would be to be trapped in a four-hundred-page, first-person, present-tense, running monologue with a character like that. I think writers who produce characters along those lines should graduate from high school and move on.

Q. It has been said that mystery narratives always emerge from a deeper social anxiety. In British mysteries, the anxiety often has to do with class hierarchy. In American crime fiction, the angst is often about masculinity. What anxieties do you see in Longmire’s narrative?

There are so many, including the two you’ve just mentioned. I think we all get up every morning and wonder if we’re making a difference, and if you’re a sheriff it’s even more pertinent. You wonder where your life’s going, where it’s gone. I think Walt deals with that. He wonders if he’s loved, or if he loves enough. I could go on, but I’m afraid it would be all too familiar to us.

Q. In contemporary stories, both on screen and in print, in which whites share the stage with Native Americans, it has become somewhat commonplace for the callow European to shed his cultural blinders and be enlightened by the ancient, intuitive wisdom of the native people. In Chapter Twelve of The Cold Dish, something like this happens to Longmire, yet the episode manages to be one of the freshest, most lyrical and memorable passages in the novel. How were you able to take what Longmire refers to before the fact (though certainly not afterward) as “mystical horseshit” and make it feel neither preachy nor contrived?

I have no clue. I wrote that half of a chapter in four hours, and to be honest, I think I was possessed. I approach poetry and spirituality like literary nitroglycerin—a little can do a lot and you better damn well be careful with it.

Q. One of the ways in which Longmire’s experience in law enforcement differs from those of the typical urban or suburban cop is that he apparently knows almost everyone in the community. He is, therefore, constantly required to bring official force to bear upon people about whom he has personal opinions and feelings. How did this kind of intimacy with the community you served affect your own experiences in law enforcement, and what influence do you think it has on Sheriff Longmire?

Sheriffing is one of the strangest forms of law enforcement; not only do you have to be a competent agent of the law, but people also have to like you so that you can get elected and keep your job. The potential for nepotism in its larger sense is vast. You develop relationships, good or bad, and they have an effect on how you do your job. I didn’t want a protagonist that was emotionally divested from the people he’s sworn to protect, but I wanted him to be fair in his treatment of those people.

Q. The dwellings you describe in The Cold Dish range from the palatial homes of Vonnie Hayes and Omar to Lonnie’s modest home on the reservation and the sheriff’s own woebegone digs. In short, there’s a bit of inequality in the Equality State. Any thoughts about the class dimensions of your story?

I’m a class warrior. Whenever I hear people postulating on the differences between themselves and anyone else, I always think, Show me your wallet. It’s been said that the south of France is an oil painting and that Wyoming is a charcoal sketch, which is fine because contrasts become more evident in a clearer field. There are less than a half million people in the state and the difference between the haves and the have-nots is pretty evident, especially on the reservation. Money should have nothing to do with the law.

Q. In Chapter Eight, we learn that Sheriff Longmire’s experience in sleuthing began during his tour in Vietnam. May we look forward to a prequel dealing with this phase of his life?

You don’t miss much, do you? The sequence you refer to is important in that it explains why Walt is what he is and who he is. Vietnam was a difficult and confusing time, and its repercussions are still being felt. Just look at the last election. His Vietnam story is an intriguing and open one, which I’m sure we’ll see again. Like Walt, I don’t like mysteries.

  • The Cheyenne and other tribes live within the borders of the United States. However, as Craig Johnson points out inThe Cold Dish, the Cheyenne also constitute a sovereign nation, and the reservation stands politically and culturally as a world apart. Characters like Henry Standing Bear and Lonnie Little Bird must mediate between two modes of life and two identities. How does Johnson address the Indian characters’ problem of dual identity?

  • Johnson’s book also deals with various images of the West, and a tension exists between the West of idealized myth and the West as it is experienced by those who actually live there. What instances of the interplay between the romantic West and the literal West do you observe, and what effects do they produce?

  • The friendship between Walt Longmire, the tough, dedicated Caucasian lawman, and Henry Standing Bear, the savvy, loyal Native American, has well-known antecedents in stories about the West. Does Johnson succeed in distinguishing the relationship from its Lone Ranger and Tonto antecedents? How can Walt and Henry’s friendship be seen as an ironic commentary on its traditional models?

  • Two of the young men who sexually assaulted Melissa Little Bird are dead before we have a chance to meet them, and they are permitted to speak only in short flashback scenes. The other two are also developed in relatively brief strokes. What does Johnson accomplish by declining to explore the psychology of the four boys, especially the more deeply guilty ones? How would the novel have been different if Johnson had chosen to investigate their motivations and viewpoints in greater depth?

  • At the end of Chapter Six, while watching a snowfall, Sheriff Longmire thinks of the tiny, inaudible sound made by a snowflake. He reflects that “an awful lot of the voices in [his] own life were so small and high as to be indetectable by the human ear.” Why does he offer this observation, and what do you think generally about his powers to hear and sympathize with the voices around him?

  • It is easy to think of the West as a principally masculine space. Nevertheless, the women in The Cold Dish refuse to be slighted, and they are much more than romantic foils for the male protagonists. Select a female character and discuss her responses to the gender-related issues in the novel.

  • The citizens of Absaroka County seem like good people, easy to have a beer with and pleased to trade jokes over a community breakfast. Yet they are also people who try to sweep scandal under the rug and are reluctant to punish the four boys for their heinous attack on a defenseless girl. How does the white community function as a collective character in the novel, and how do central characters like Walt, Henry, Vic, and Lonnie either make peace with the community or define themselves against it?

  • In Chapter Twelve, Walt observes, “All the important promises are about leaving and not leaving.” Is this statement true or is it merely Walt’s perception? In either case, what does the statement tell us about the needs and values of Walt’s character?

  • George Esper’s repeated escapes from custody form a recurrent motif in the latter chapters of the novel. Do these escapes have significance apart from the comic frustration they cause Sheriff Longmire? Is there a symbolic dimension to George Esper, whose lack of common sense continually thrusts him outside of attempts to restrain him?

  • The title of the novel alludes to revenge. Does the revenge that is taken in the novel produce satisfaction for anyone? If the county court had given out stiffer sentences in the Little Bird case, would that outcome have been more satisfying than the acts of a vigilante killer? Does the book as a whole describe a triumph or a failure of justice?

  • The Cold Dish both begins and ends with Walt’s watching the flight of Canada geese. What mood is created by this framing image? Does Walt’s interest in the geese have a larger meaning?
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