Craig Johnson is so thoroughly at ease with the landscape of his novels that his characters take on the coloring of their locations, from Absaroka County, Wyoming, to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana, where Sheriff Walt Longmire is attempting to negotiate the venue of his daughter’s wedding in less than two weeks. Cady has her heart set on Crazy Head Springs, but so far negotiations have broken down—and not in Longmire’s favor. Accompanied by Longmire’s longtime friend, Henry Standing Bear (aka “The Cheyenne Nation”), the sheriff is researching other locations when he and Henry witness a young woman’s plunge from the cliff at Painted Warrior, the woman’s six-month old baby in her arms.
Unbelievably, the baby is unharmed, but Audrey Last Bull does not survive the fall. Walt and Henry get sidetracked from the wedding plans to investigate the cause of the young mother’s death, quickly consigning the wedding to second tier given the circumstances. Thanks to his work on behalf of the Indians at the reservation, Walt is a welcome figure in most places, but there are always a few renegade individuals who are up to no good and able to hide behind a tangle of family ties, with numerous cousins that link one family to another. As Walt backtracks Audrey’s movements prior to her death, her husband becomes a likely suspect. There are other equally intriguing possibilities, including an Iraq vet who has been unable to assimilate back home since his experiences in the war.
The most colorful character in the novel is the newly elected tribal police chief, Lobo Long, also a vet. The quick-to-anger and aggressive young woman arrests Walt in their first encounter at the crime scene at Painted Warrior, her acerbic manner not the best tool for dealing with constituents or another law enforcement officer. Knocked off his game, it takes Longmire a while to get his head around the fact that he has actually been arrested by Lobo Long. Eventually Lobo calms down and even admits she has no skills for her new job as tribal police chief, although she certainly reminds Longmire of his own under-sheriff, Victoria Moretti—except that Victoria has the training required for working with the general public. Eventually coming to her senses, a shamefaced Lobo asks Walt to school her in the nuances of law enforcement and proves an able student, if too aggressive in her approach to most situations.
Bunking with the ancient and wise tribal chief, Lonnie Little Bird, to be available for Chief Long every day, the pair interview both the victim’s husband and Artie Small Son, the Iraq vet, who proves more difficult to locate, although Artie’s mother, a medicine woman, takes Longmire with her for a sacred tribal ritual that involves ingesting peyote and communing with the spirits. While in that altered state, Walt has extraordinary visions, including a conversation with a bear, a crow, and the presumed-dead Virgil White Buffalo, an experiment that helps the sheriff solve the crime.
In a rich and historically-charged blend of character and place, Johnson once again delivers a story that links past and present in a landscape filled with reminders of systematic genocide in the name of territorial acquisition, a precious cultural resource too often neglected but alive with the ongoing drama of humanity.