Walt Longmire is tired. “It had been the kind of winter that tested the souls of even the hardiest” (p. 1), and the Sherriff of Wyoming’s Absaroka County is feeling the accumulated weight of nearly thirty years on the job—plus the complications of his quasi-romance with Deputy Vic Moretti. Walt has little time for introspection, however, when the town junkman is dragged two-plus miles over frozen roads tied to the back of his family’s 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado. Fortunately, seventy-two-year-old Geo Stewart is seemingly indestructible, and survives his icy escapade. But, as the Stewart clan’s unwieldy saga begins to unfold, the whole department finds itself caught up in a case that strains their already frayed nerves to the breaking point.
Walt’s other deputy, Santiago “Sancho” Saizarbitoria, is grappling with his mortality after “having a serrated kitchen knife filleting one of his kidneys” (p. 25). To make things worse, Sancho’s reentry to police work is complicated by the recent birth of his first child. He’s ready to call it quits, but Walt is determined to keep him on the job, or at least cure him of his “bullet fever” (p. 48) first. So when Geo and his grandson, Duane, find a recently severed thumb at the dump, Walt puts Sancho on the case.
While recovering the thumb, Walt and Sancho witness a stand-off between Geo and Ozzie Dobbs, a local real estate developer. For years, Ozzie has been working to build Redhills Rancho Arroyo—a spread of “five-acre ranchettes with four-million dollar mansions alongside a golf course” (p. 27). The only fly in his ointment is the fact that the development’s splendid views are marred by the junkyard—which Geo refuses to sell. But the lawmen are stopped in their tracks by the prolonged kiss exchanged—out of Ozzie’s sight—between the junkman and Ozzie’s exceedingly lovely and genteel mother, Betty.
His professional duties momentarily on the backburner, Walt returns to his mounting personal troubles. Vic longs to own a home that doesn’t rest on wheels, and she’s upping the hostility towards Walt for his inability to commit. Meanwhile, his grown daughter, Cady, a Philadelphia-based lawyer, is planning her wedding—to Michael Moretti, Vic’s younger brother. Beset with headaches brought on by a neglected eye injury, Walt fantasizes about retiring to “Hatch, New Mexico…[and] a little adobe house…with chilies hanging in the window” (p. 97).
All too soon, a very real dead body jolts the honorable sheriff out of his daydreams to uncover a tangled web of illicit drugs, and even more illicit family relations. With the mother of all snowstorms on the way—and stonewalled by Duane, Duane’s wife, Gina, and a pair of the meanest mutts in the West—Walt must draw on all his resources to stop a killer. Filled with humor, pathos, and unforgettable Western imagery, Craig Johnson’s Junkyard Dogs is another page-turning adventure in the series that’s made Walt Longmire a beloved mystery favorite.
Craig Johnson is the author of six Walt Longmire mysteries. He lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population twenty-five.
The town of Durant is hunkered down for a winter storm, and for all the severity of the weather and isolation it might as well be on the moon. Winter tends to bring out the morose in my sadder but wiser sheriff; I looked at the book as my winter of our discontent. It deals with the more venal aspects of human nature and that has a tendency in law enforcement to wear you down in the day-to-day, which might be what you’re responding to. In direct opposition with this is that I think this is also the most humorous book I’ve written.
Q. Parental anxiety (e.g. Walt/Cady, Betty/Ozzie, and Sancho/Antonio) seems to be a central theme of this novel. What inspired this?
Nobody pushes your buttons (both good and bad) like family, and with the claustrophobic aspects of the book, I thought it just fit. The microcosm of community is family, so it was the next logical step in going inward. In a lot of ways that’s what the book is about; the things that people do to each other and just how far they’ll go. What starts out as a neighborly squabble erupts into a full-blown range war.
Q. This is Walt’s sixth outing. What do you do to stay fresh over so many novels?
Tony Hillerman once told me that at the risk of sounding like an old sports analogy—you’ve got to play ‘em one at a time. Each book is an entity unto itself and you have to treat it with that respect; not try and get it to fit some artificial formula you’ve cooked up or that might’ve been successful for you before. Each of the books deals with a social problem as a catalyst such as the one for this one—the economy of the new West. It might be dangerous rolling the dice on each book, but I’d rather offend the readers that way than by writing the same book all the time.
Q. You’ve incorporated the country’s current economic woes into the story. Have you felt its repercussions even in your town of twenty-five residents?
There’s always a cushion in rural living, but times are hard for a lot of people and I think it’s important to reflect the world in which the characters live accurately. The financial limitations that Walt faces as a small, rural police force are more of an advantage to the writing than a hindrance. Walt can’t always get on his cell phone or computer and look for answers, so instead he falls back on old-style policing, which lends itself to the exploration of character and humanity. That stuff is always going to be more interesting than gadgets.
Q. Sometimes, the setting of a novel can be so vivid that it’s like another character. In Junkyard Dogs, one could say that about the weather. Is it really that much of a presence? Do you, like Walt, fantasize about retiring to New Mexico?
You know, there was a point last spring where I tractored the six-foot drifts on my ranch road four times in two weeks, and that got old. I live in Walt’s surroundings and I think that’s an advantage in the writing. I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret of mine, a way that I’m very different from Walt—I love cold. I built my ranch in northern Wyoming for a reason. If I’d wanted to, I could’ve built it in New Mexico or Arizona but I like the winter; it keeps you tough. Walt fantasizes about warmer climates, but I don’t think he’d last here—as much as he’d enjoy the great Mexican food, he needs the high plains.
Q. In one passage, the Emergency Room doctor tells Walt that Geo’s “hair has grown through his long underwear” (p. 16). Is this, or any of the other colorful stories in the novel based in real life?
You caught that, huh? It’s true. They brought a neighbor of mine in after he cracked a few ribs and discovered that indeed, his hair had grown through his long underwear. There are so many weird and wonderful things about where I live, and it’s just too much of a temptation to place them in the novels; most of the time when somebody confronts me about something ridiculous in my books—it’s actually a true story.
Q. Your last novel, The Dark Horse, featured a highly intelligent horse and a woman who felt more connected to horses than humans. Here, the junkyard dogs, Butch and Sundance, have very distinct personalities and loyalties. Do you believe that animals are capable of good and evil?
I think we can discern their actions as good or evil, but that’s just us. There was a character in my last novel who stated my feelings on the subject best, “Animals is some of the finest people I know.” In many ways, the defense for Butch and Sundance is very similar to the ones we have for ourselves—just doing their job. Thankfully, Dog was just doing his…
Q. Some might think that big-time drug dealing is an urban problem. Would this be an incorrect assumption?
Yes. For production purposes, these individuals need privacy and there’s a lot of open country out there. This isn’t exactly a news flash with the number of methamphetamine and marijuana busts that have been made across the country in very rural areas.
Q. Previously, you’ve said that outrage over social inequities inspires your work. Is that the case in this novel?
Not much question about that, is there? If you look at the differences between Red Hills Arroyo and the Stewart compound the differences become pretty evident. A lot of the economy of the West is one of the haves and the have-nots, and I’m not sure it’s getting any better. I get outraged pretty easy, and it’s great fuel for the writing.
Q. What’s next for Craig Johnson and Walt Longmire?
Hell Is Empty is the title of the next book and it comes from Prospero’s line in The Tempest—”Hell is empty and the devils are all here.” Walt is involved in an exhumation in the Bighorn Mountains when a number of individuals escape from a private transportation firm. The novel is a metaphor for The Inferno, which Saizarbitoria happens to be reading in an attempt to make up for the lack of liberal arts education in his criminal justice degree. When Walt starts out after these very dangerous individuals, Sancho pokes the paperback into his pack for reading material and the similarities begin to mount. Can anybody remember who Dante’s guide through hell was?
Spoiler Warning: Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know whodunit!