“Longmire” author Craig Johnson returns to Northwest Passages with the latest installment in the series, “Hell and Back.” Johnson is the New York Times bestselling author of the Longmire mysteries, the basis for the hit Netflix original series Longmire. He is the recipient of the Western Writers of America Spur Award for fiction, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award for fiction, the Nouvel Observateur Prix du Roman Noir, and the Prix SNCF du Polar. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A six-pack of Rainier beer was brought out to author Craig Johnson before the discussion began at a packed house at the Bing Crosby Theater on Saturday.
Johnson, the author of the Longmire book series, told the audience at The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club that back when he was a cowboy, Rainier beer was trying to break into the market in Montana and his home state of Wyoming.
“You could buy a six pack for a $1.50,” the author recalled, sporting a cowboy hat and boots. “That became my go-to beer.”
And so it was natural that the beer became the signature drink of Johnson’s grizzled lawman Sheriff Walt Longmire of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming.
Sheriff Longmire returned on Sept. 6 with the release of Johnson’s 18th book in the book-series-turned-Netflix-show. “Hell and Back” was ranked at No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list this week for hardcover fiction.
Johnson’s appearance at the Northwest Passages event is his second since 2018, after the release of “Depth of Winter.”
Johnson, who is on tour across the country to promote “Hell and Back,” said that this latest episode takes on a more supernatural twist.
The sheriff wakes up in the middle of a road with two silver dollars placed over his eyes. He doesn’t know who he is or how he got there, but he’s covered in blood and he’s missing a bullet from his sidearm.
The sky above him is a “strange, darkish yellow” and there’s the smell of something burning in the distance. Everyone the sheriff meets will be familiar to longtime fans of the Longmire series, as they are all characters from previous books who have died.
“On the inside of his hat is the name, ‘Walt Longmire.’ That’s the only thing he has to go by,” Johnson told the audience on Saturday.
That, and the difference between right and wrong.
“He still has that moral compass,” Johnson said.
Like “Hell and Back,” the previous book also took on supernatural forces through Native American mythology. Native American mysticism has been present throughout all of the books, the author said in a previous interview. In “Daughter of the Morning Star,” Johnson also explored the high rates of missing and murdered Native American women and girls.
This book is not the first time that Johnson has taken on topical issues in contemporary American and Western life.
In “Hell and Back,” Johnson explores the history of Native American boarding schools, which have made headlines this past year in the U.S. and Canada. A Department of Interior investigation revealed that more than 500 Native American children are believed to have died in boarding schools across the United States between 1819 and 1969.
“I tend to refer to what I write as socially responsible crime writing. One of my least favorite phrases is ‘page turner.’ I don’t work all year on a book just so you can flip through it,” Johnson said. “It’s really important for me to have a social commentary to say.”
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