Craig Johnson: Longmire loses memory, not moral compass, in 'Hell and Back'

Craig Johnson's latest Walt Longmire mystery, "Hell and Back," went on sale Tuesday. Photo by Adam Jahiel
Craig Johnson's latest Walt Longmire mystery, "Hell and Back," went on sale Tuesday. Photo by Adam Jahiel

NEW YORK, Sept. 6 (UPI) -- Author Craig Johnson admits it was risky to venture into more mystical territory for his latest mystery novel, Hell and Back, but he thinks his readers are smart, and their love for his iconic lawman Walt Longmire strong enough to make the book a hit.

"Whenever you're approaching 20 novels in a series, you really need to try and stretch your wings a little bit and try to do something a little bit different," Johnson told UPI in a recent phone interview.


"It gives you a little bit of pause because if you have had a certain amount of success with the style of writing that you do and the characters, you are risking alienating a certain portion of your readership," he said.

"But I've been extraordinarily fortunate that I've got some really sharp readers, and being with a literary press like Viking Penguin pretty much gives me the literary license to do what I want to do."


On sale Tuesday, the contemporary western, Hell and Back, is the follow-up to Johnson's 2021 best-seller, Daughter of the Morning Star, which saw Wyoming's honest and practical Sheriff Longmire searching for missing Native Jeanie and experiencing a series of odd occurrences.

The Northern Cheyenne blame those on a paranormal entity they call the Éveohtsé-heómėse, the "Wandering Without, the Stealer of Souls."

Hell and Back finds Walt waking up in the middle of a snowy Montana street without his wallet or any idea who he is or why he's there.

Walt soon learns that the town is Fort Pratt, the infamous location of an 1896 boarding school fire at which dozens of young Native boys died.

As he tries to pull himself together, Walt realizes something is familiar about some of the locals, but he can't put his finger on it. Nearby, his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, deputy Vic and his nameless dog are working to find him and bring him home.

"This is not the first time that we've had any kind of supernatural or mystical aspects within the books; that goes all the way back to The Cold Dish," Johnson said. "This one definitely pushes the envelope."

Writing a story about Walt in which he doesn't have his normal resources and team to help him unravel mysteries was strange and exciting for Johnson.


This time around, the sheriff must rely solely on his instinct and intellect to figure out what is going on.

"I like to think of Walt as a world-class investigator," the author said. "He's a Hercule Poirot. He's a Sherlock Holmes. It's just that he happens to live in the least-populated county in the least populated state in America, which puts him at a little bit of a disadvantage."

Even when Walt doesn't know exactly who he is, he is a stand-up guy.

"He does have a pretty strong moral compass," Johnson said.

"Those lessons that he was taught about being a decent human being and doing the right thing seem to be indelible. They seem to give him that true north compass that allows him to navigate uncharted waters," he added.

"Imagine waking up not knowing who you are or where you are or why you are -- and then to have some kind of faint feeling that something is not quite right and that everyone you meet there is some kind of inclination that they're dead and to work your way through that almost never-ending night to find the answers to why it is that you are there."


When the new book opens, the amnesiac Walt is trying to determine what has brought him to Fort Pratt.

Readers will deduce quickly that his investigation into Jeanie's disappearance led him there, but their next big question will likely be how is that connected to a town best known for a past tragedy?

Johnson said the burg was named for Richard Henry Pratt, a military officer and educator whose "Kill the Indian, save the man," mantra was the basis for the assimilation teachings at the boarding school.

"He had some good motivations in what he was attempting to do," Johnson said.

"He was the first individual to coin the phrase 'racist' in saying, 'You can't divide a people away from the mainstream of society and expect them to succeed in that mainstream society,'" the author noted. "The actuality of the boarding school led to many situations that were simply horrifying."

Recent real-life investigations are being conducted into how hundreds of Native children died at more than 50 government-run boarding schools in the United States and Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries.

When possible, their remains are located and repatriated to their families and tribes, in hopes of helping indigenous peoples form a more complete oral history.


Johnson weaves this history into his fiction in an attempt to enlighten readers who might not be aware of this.

"I thought, 'OK, if there is an underpinning for this second book in this particular story line, that's probably where that story line has to go. The first one dealt with murdered indigenous women and this one deals with the abuses of that boarding school system," Johnson said.

"It's always an important aspect of the Walt books to always deal with social elements and issues and historical elements that actually did happen."

Johnson's books are the basis for the TV series, Longmire, which starred Robert Taylor, Katee Sackhoff and Lou Diamond Phillips. It ran 2012-17 and remains popular in reruns.

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