Of Westerns and Cozies, A Quick Note on The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

[No spoilers in what follows.]

Craig Johnson is the author the Walt Longmire series of mysteries, set in Absaroka County, Wyoming. The first novel in the series is The Cold Dish, which introduces Sheriff Walter Longmire, his best friend Henry Standing Bear, his deputy Victoria Moretti and other small western town and rez types, likable and not. I picked up the book because two of my most beloved authors endorse it on the front and back cover: Tony Hillerman, author of the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries, and Robert B. Parker, the author of the Spenser series.

The Cold Dish proved to be a surprising pleasure. It’s an interesting novel because it’s a cross between a cozy and a western. Cozies are mysteries that you read by the fire with a cup of tea, shivering with pleasure. They are books in which you love the characters and their world and the mystery is almost incidental to the indulgence of living with them. Settings for cozies include quaint English villages or other beautiful places, like Tuscany in the summer. In my opinion, the male detectives in cozies are charming police inspectors who are designed to appeal to readers who are not looking for Rambo on a rampage: they are gentle, intuitive, self-effacing and decidedly contrary to machismo. The Louise Penny mysteries starring Chief Inspector Gamache are an example of this kind of mystery.

I’m not usually a fan of cozies, nor do I read westerns, so my delight at The Cold Dish was a surprise. Walt Longmire is the older uncle you always wanted, and his affectionate, paternal demeanor with Victoria Moretti and other friends in town is plain charming. The bromance between Longmire and his Cheyenne best friend Henry Standing Bear is reminiscent of the relationship between Spenser and Hawk in Robert B. Parker. Both men are gentle giants capable of extraordinary feats of courage and they are endlessly devoted to each other.

Maybe the most important thing about a cozy is whether you want to get cozy with it. Do you want to spend a week or two living in a small English or Canadian village? The Cold Dish has a lot of that, and it makes sense: the majestic mountains of Wyoming, its rivers and lakes, provide an epic backdrop to small town life and the investigation of murder. This novel is set in Autumn, with snow storms and sunshine alternating. You want to be there. The characters are warm, and the landscape beautiful.

Another plus is a dose of American Indian culture and tradition, something that Tony Hillerman immortalized in his series set in New Mexico. It’s definitely an art to infuse a cozy with a touch of evil and folklore, and the world of Walt Longmire contains both: his is a world where evil happens, and where Indian beliefs and customs coexist with western rationalism. There is some creepiness there to make the cozy elements pop all the more.

I really liked The Cold Dish, it was a warm book and I plan to go back for more.

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