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Craig Johnson makes crime pay

Special to The Times

Craig Johnson comes as advertised. Standing outside the Autry National Center on a boiling summer afternoon, the Wyoming-based crime novelist is decked out in a long-sleeve shirt made of heavy cotton, scuffed brown boots and a 10-gallon hat that provides shade, but not nearly enough. Spotting his interlocutor, Johnson sticks out his hand and delivers a booming “How ya doin’?!” This is the same Marlboro Man who squints at readers from the window of a beat-up junker truck on the jackets of his four novels, which includes the recently released “Another Man’s Moccasins.”

If you didn’t know that Johnson was a rising star in the crime novel genre, you might mistake the guileless rancher for a hayseed agog in the big city. That is, until he goes inside the museum and wanders around its latest exhibit on presidents and cowboys. Suddenly, Johnson is dropping little nuggets of historical information like a docent. Passing a photo of Bat Masterson, Johnson, 47, reels off the titles of some of the dime novels that the famed western crime-fighter wrote. He’s got a few choice factoids on Lyndon B. Johnson and Calvin Coolidge as well.

In “Another Man’s Moccasins,” Johnson flashes back and forth between present-day Wyoming -- the setting for all four of his novels -- and LBJ-era Vietnam, where Johnson’s protagonist, Sheriff Walt Longmire, once served as a Marine investigator during the war. As Longmire, the star of all four Johnson novels, searches for the killer of a Vietnamese girl who’s found on the highway in tiny Absaroka County, his past creeps up on him, back to memories of drug runners and prostitutes among the mud and pestilence of Tan Son Nhut and Tet. As Longmire unravels the present-day murder mystery, Johnson uses his parallel stories to ponder racism, redemption and the gravitational pull of the past.

Like the greatest crime novelists, Johnson is a student of human nature. Walt Longmire is strong but fallible, a man whose devil-may-care stoicism masks a heightened sensitivity to the horrors he’s witnessed. “Longmire has seen some bad stuff in his life,” said Johnson. “I suppose there’s a good deal of myself in Walt, but he’s unhappier than I am. He certainly believes in the goodness of humankind even as he deals with his share of, for lack of a better word, evil.”

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Unlike traditional genre novelists who obsess mainly over every hairpin plot turn, Johnson’s books are also preoccupied with the mystery of his characters’ psyches. “Another Man’s Moccasins” delves deeper into Longmire’s dark past than any previous Johnson novel. It’s a long and sometimes unpleasant plunge into his unsettled conscience. “The thing about crime fiction is that readers have the same expectations that readers of literary fiction might have,” he said. “They want strong character development, a story arc that makes sense, social commentary. They also want the whodunit part, but everything else is just as important.”

‘A strong voice’

Although Johnson’s previous books (“The Cold Dish,” “Kindness Goes Unpunished” and “Death Without Company”) have sold well, especially among crime fiction fans on the West Coast, his publisher, Viking Penguin, hopes “Another Man’s Moccasins” will be a breakout novel that will vault Johnson into the kind of mainstream success enjoyed by Michael Connelly and Janet Evanovich. “There’s a strong voice in Craig’s writing, and that’s what I always look for. He really understands character, and his books contain a lot of wit,” said Kathryn Court, the president and publisher of Viking Penguin Books, who has edited all of Johnson’s novels.

Those novels are grounded in the West. While walking through the Autry museum, he professes his affection for John Ford’s films and tells a funny story about how Ford chose the Monument Valley region of Arizona as a film location (a small-time store owner with dollar signs in his eyes lured him there, apparently). Johnson views the West’s lore as something to push against, as prime material to debunk in his books. “A vertical man in a horizontal landscape is a compelling image,” he said. “But there are aspects of the West, such as our treatment of Native Americans, that cannot be ignored; at least, I can’t ignore them.”

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The mores and rituals of Wyoming’s local Crow and Cheyenne tribes play a prominent part in “Another Man’s Moccasins.” A prime suspect turns out to be a Crow Indian, and Longmire must rely on Henry Standing Bear, Walt Longmire’s sharp-witted confidant and fellow Vietnam vet who appears in all the books, to navigate his way through the customs of the local tribes, particularly their complex caste systems and atavistic feuds. “I wanted to explore the notion of justice both on and off the Rez,” said Johnson, who has befriended members of the Cheyenne tribe. “There’s a lot of dramatic conflict in this region -- between opposing tribes, between tribes and the white population. It’s a very multilayered region of the country.”

Finding a new home

Like Longmire, Johnson resides in Wyoming, in a small town called Ucross in the northern part of the state. Johnson discovered it by accident. It seems he was delivering horses to a rancher some years ago, and the rancher hadn’t shown up. “I spent 72 hours waiting for this guy,” said Johnson. “I looked around and thought, ‘This is a nice place. If I ever get the time, this might be where I wanna settle in.’ ”

It would be a decade or so before Johnson finally did make Wyoming his home. His life until that point had been like one of his novels -- full of interesting detours. He grew up in Cabell County, W.Va., the son of an engineer father and a schoolteacher mother. “They read voraciously,” he said. “I loved books, but I also knew there was a lot I wasn’t seeing just yet, and books could only take me so far.”

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Johnson mentions a few small-time scrapes with the law during his Angry Young Man period -- joy riding stolen cars, mostly. He had some notion that he wanted to write, but he had no idea how to go about doing it. Johnson studied playwriting at Temple University in Philadelphia and even got his doctorate degree there, but the thought of writing professionally seemed impractical. Then one afternoon “I was looking through the Village Voice and I came across a notice for the Civil Service Exam course,” he said. “Well, I thought being a cop might be a good idea. So I went down there.”

Officer Johnson worked in the 23rd district of Manhattan, living in a brownstone in Harlem. “That period had a formative effect on my ideas about society, the police and criminal behavior,” he said. “I had spent a lot of my life dodging cops, and suddenly I was one! I began to have a lot more empathy for law enforcement.”

Johnson was mentally stocking away stories and observations during his two years on the force, then suddenly decided it was time to move West and maybe write a book. He plunked his savings down on a large tract of land in Ucross and decided to build a ranch. Literally, with his own hands. Johnson laid 1,200 logs alone for the beams of his roof. It’s been seven years, but he’s getting there. “That’s a young man’s job,” he said. “If I had built the bulk of it after the age of 40 it would have killed me!”

While building his ranch, Johnson befriended Larry Kirkpatrick, a sheriff in nearby Buffalo, Wyo., to pick his brain about local law enforcement. He got what he needed, then wrote two chapters and shoved them into his desk. It would be nine years before he pulled them out. “I was filling my gas tank one day and there was Larry,” said Johnson. “He shook my hand and said, ‘Aren’t you the guy writing that murder mystery? If you don’t mind me saying so, it’s going kinda slow!’ So I got back to work!”

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He finished the rest of “The Cold Dish” in five months, then got lucky when Gail Hochman, a major literary agent who also represents Scott Turow and Julia Glass, loved the manuscript and sold it to Penguin as part of a multi-book deal. Now he’s entertaining movie offers for “Another Man’s Moccasins” and his earlier novels. But for Johnson, publication has been its own reward. “My dream was to be published by the same company that published Steinbeck’s books,” he said. “Just to see that orange spine running along the side of my novels. That was my idea of heaven.”


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