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Book review: ‘Hell and Back’ is no ordinary trip

By Ron Sylvester For The Spokesman-Review

Craig Johnson’s “Longmire” series already has built a huge following of fans on Netflix, but his latest novel about the stoic sheriff also has the feel of another popular series on the same streaming service, “Stranger Things.”

In “Hell and Back,” Walt Longmire finds himself in his own upside-down world, where parts seem familiar but are oh so out of whack with reality. That sets up an interesting adventure that will certainly appeal to Johnson’s longtime fans.

And Johnson obviously has enough to keep a publisher asking for more, banging out installments about Longmire like a newspaper reporter on deadline. Except for a year’s rest after the first Longmire novel, “A Cold Dish” in 2004, Johnson has pushed out at least one a year, sometimes two and even three in 2013. Viking, it seems, can’t keep printing Longmire books long enough.

I must admit I have not read any of the other Longmire books, nor have I watched the series, and purposely didn’t when I found out I’d be reading and reviewing this one. I wanted to view it with fresh eyes. Reading this at least makes me want to check out the TV series.

“Hell and Back” finds Longmire looking to be on his last leg, struggling through a story of haunted hearts, where ghosts keep the sheriff searching for answers the biggest one being, “Am I dead?”

The book opens with Walt waking up a bloody wreck in a snowstorm what may be Montana, may be Wyoming, not remembering who he is or how he got there. Amnesia becomes his biggest nemesis. Interesting characters pop in and out of existence, prodding Longmire’s memory. While the supporting cast would flesh out the book, this is obviously Longmire’s story and everyone else is just there to drive his narrative.

While Longmire is not sure who he is, everyone else knows him.

“You’re our only hope,” the barkeep with the Spanish accent tells Longmire in the small town where people die but no one seems to stay dead.

Johnson can also turn some clever phrases as he sends Longmire time traveling to a Native American boarding school that had burned down a century before, but which comes to life as the sheriff wanders through a broken gate.

“The floors were green and white tiles worn to shade of institutional neglect,” Johnson writes, “many of them broken with pieces swept to the painted baseboards like parts of jigsaw puzzles never to be joined.”

The narrative combines Longmire’s plight with those in a real world trying to find the missing sheriff who seems to have fallen through a portal of time and space. Johnson has a knack for writing action scenes for his hero, who seems to be a cross between Sam Spade and Marshall Matt Dillon, as he keeps the reader moving along toward an ending that’s neither unexpected nor surprising.

But this book will keep Longmire fans coming back for more – if there is more. Johnson provides hints that this might be Longmire’s last mission, as the old body has seen better days and gets battered up a bit more in these chapters.

Then again, Johnson has written two more books since finishing “Next to Last Stand.”

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