Craig Johnson’s 18th novel featuring Walt Longmire was released on Tuesday, and I made darn sure that it was ready and waiting in my Audible account so I could start listening on the one-hour commute to my day job.
George Guidall, the wonderful narrator who has read to me all of the books, is back behind the microphone, his 86-year-old voice still unmistakeable and undoubtedly the voice of the sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, with all due respect to Robert Taylor, who portrayed Longmire on television for six seasons.
After reading some opening quotes and an introductory acknowledgment by the author, Guidall took a breath and said two words that surprised me by bringing tears to my eyes and a delighted smile to my face.
He said, “Chapter One.”
That was when I realized how invested I’ve become in the adventures of Walt Longmire, and especially as told by George Guidall. I love the characters who inhabit Durant, Wyoming — Walt, Vic Moretti, Henry Standing Bear, and the rest — and each new book is like visiting with old friends from the hometown again.
The level of anticipation that rose in my heart when George said, “Chapter One,” was breathtaking. I wanted to stay in the car for the whole eight hours or so that it’s going to take to “read” the book.
There has always been an element of the supernatural in the Longmire books — he has been helped on an occasion or two by the spirit of a friend who is most definitely no longer with us, for example, and in last year’s story, Daughter of the Morning Star, we learned about a mythical soul-devouring entity known as The Wandering Without that may or may not be real.
So far Hell and Back doubles down on the supernatural element. The story opens with Walt waking up flat on his back in the middle of the road in a blizzard, with no memory of how he got there, where “there” is, what day it is, and, wait a minute, “Who am I?” He wanders into town, where he encounters a beautiful waitress who happens to have the same name as his late wife, Martha, a seven-foot-tall Native American carrying a spear, and other characters who bear a resemblance to characters known to have died in prior books. Meanwhile, we cut away to Henry and Vic long enough to know they’re searching for their missing friend, which has led them all to Fort Pratt, Montana, just over the border.
The mystery revolves around the Fort Pratt Industrial Indian Training School, one of the horrific facilities that a century ago were taking native children from their families and stripping them of their cultural identities. The school was destroyed in a New Years Eve fire many years ago. The fire began at 8:17 p.m. and killed 31 children. It’s not long before we learn that it’s now New Year’s Eve, Walt’s watch and several clocks have stopped at 8:17, there’s a power outage and electricity probably won’t be restored for 31 hours, and Walt manages to secure a room at a hotel — wait for it — Room 31.
Johnson’s introduction promises a genre-busting gothic romantic western with a touch of horror, and I can see the boxes being checked off one by one. This is going to be fun.